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Young woman goes from refugee camp to medical school in 5 years

SALT LAKE CITY — Just five years ago, Hodan Abdi, a petite, 18-year-old Somalian, left an Ethiopian refugee camp and headed to the U.S. armed with only five years of formal education and English language skills she acquired while watching movies.

On Thursday, she will graduate from the University of Utah with a chemistry degree. Later this summer she will begin medical school at the University of Minnesota.

Abdi will speak at the University of Utah commencement ceremony Thursday evening. She will give a speech she wrote the day before applications were due. She didn’t need much time to tell a story she is living and to acknowledge the help she received along the way.

Meanwhile, the quiet, soft-spoken Abdi has been watching TED Talks to hone her speaking skills.

“School is everything,” she says. “I remember the (refugee) camp, I have many hardworking friends who don’t have the same opportunities as me.”

At this point, tears roll down her cheeks, and then she says, “I work hard for all of them.”

Only a few years ago she lived in a tent in the Sheder refugee camp in western Ethiopia, her home from 2008-13. At the time, it was a city of 10,000 residents located “in the middle of nowhere,” nothing but flat, drought-stricken desert. There were no cars, no town, no stores and sometimes no water. The wind-blown sand was everywhere — in the tent, in hair, clothes, shoes, food. Then the rare rain would come and flood the camp.

Abdi walked one to two hours a day to wash clothes and collect water in a reservoir, or to find wood for the family stove, traveling through a dangerous, sandy wasteland. She carried water in a jug on top of her head for miles over desolate stretches, risking attacks from thieves or worse. She had to walk farther and farther from camp for wood as the closest trees were taken first, eventually forcing families to use charcoal for cooking.

The U.N. delivered food monthly to the camp, but it was never enough. Medical care was difficult to obtain, as well.

“I was just surviving,” Abdi says. “I was not sure of my future.”

The family fled to the camp to escape Somalia’s civil war after explosions and gunshots drew closer to their home and friends and neighbors were killed. As Abdi recalls, rebel forces targeted “everyone who was doing well or minding his own business, especially someone who was working for Americans. Now when I look back, it’s really scary. But it was normal at the time.”

Aside from the risk of bullets and bombs, there were frequent droughts, little clean water, no electricity, cholera outbreaks and no vaccines. (Abdi herself says she almost died from an illness.)

Abdi’s mother, Sasiya, supported her eight children and husband by working two jobs. She worked through the morning and afternoon cleaning offices and then she sold produce in the market until 10. It fell to Hodan Abdi to take care of her siblings. She was not the oldest child, but she inherited the role of caretaker because she was considered mature and wise beyond her years.

“My mother was away so I raised all my siblings,” she says.

School was largely denied to girls in their Muslim community; they were expected to do housework and study the Quran and marry young. But Abdi was held out of school for another reason. The rebels targeted schools and universities. As a result, Abdi’s only education consisted of an hour or two of madrassa, the religious training for Muslims where she studied Arabic and memorized the Quran.

Her mother, who lacked education herself and worked menial jobs all her life, urged her children to seek education as a means to a better life. Taking this admonition seriously, Abdi studied on her own at home. She read biographies, histories, literature, Shakespeare, the Greeks, Isaac Newton (“He’s my idol,” she says).

On weekends, Abdi read books in English and watched American movies with subtitles. In the process she learned English, which would prove to be a useful skill, although she didn’t know it at the time.

With the war closing in, Abdi's mother took six of her children and drove across the border to the refugee camp in 2008 (her husband would join the family later, in the U.S.). Life was harder there, if safer, but it also proved to be a blessing.

“It had a school,” says Abdi. “I was so happy.”

At 13, she enrolled in school for the first time, as a sixth-grader. She made the most of the opportunity. After caring for her siblings and tucking them into bed, she would sleep until 2 a.m. and then rouse herself and study by candlelight until it was time to fix breakfast for the family.

The hope of refugee students is to earn a university scholarship, but ultimately even that can be a dead end. Refugees were essentially prisoners in the camp, unable to leave without permission from the government. College graduates had to return to the camp unless they were given a visa.

Abdi's family endured three years of the screening process trying to obtain a visa to the U.S. This required long trips to the city for numerous interviews. In February of 2013, they were granted the visa. They were sent directly to Utah.

At 18 years old, Abdi was considered too old for high school, so she took a job cleaning student housing at the University of Utah to support her family. Martha Archuleta, a mentor from Catholic Community Services who would befriend Abdi, urged the young woman to earn a GED.

Abdi obtained a library card, checked out a book on the GED test and began preparing for the test. (“Science and math were harder in the camp,” she notes, “but I struggled with the reading.”)

In August 2013 — just six months after leaving Ethiopia — she completed the GED. Weeks later she enrolled at Salt Lake Community College, and in 2015 she graduated with nearly a perfect grade-point average. She enrolled at the U. in the fall of 2015 and was nothing if not a serious student.

Amy Wylie, another mentor, recalls when a distraught Abdi showed up in her office. “I think I’m going to die!” she said. “I feel so depressed.” She was upset because she had received an A-minus in one of her classes.

When Abdi’s family moved to Minnesota just six months after arriving in the U.S. — there is a large population of Somali refugees there — she was left to fend for herself, emotionally and financially. Archuleta and Wylie filled the void.

“It takes a village even here in the U.S.,” says Wylie, director of One Refugee Education, which is funded by philanthropists Roger and Sara Boyer (additional funding for Abdi was provided by the Wheeler Foundation). One Refugee is currently supporting 200 refugees and has assisted some 350 the last four years.

“I want to be like Amy and Martha,” says Abdi. “They are nice, caring people. I want to help.”

She aspires to be a doctor because of her childhood experiences — a brother who had epilepsy and nearly died while trying to get medical attention; the scarcity of doctors and medical facilities for refugees; the memory of standing eight hours in the hot sun just to see a doctor; the malnutrition and disease she saw firsthand.

Abdi plans to graduate from medical school — perhaps in neurology or maybe infectious diseases — and work to pay off her loans and take care of her family. Then she hopes to return to Somalia to provide medical care there. Maybe she will work for World Health Organization, she says, or maybe Doctors Without Borders.

On Thursday, she will tell her story to thousands at Utah’s commencement ceremony.

“I also want to talk about my experience here,” she says. “I want to talk about how professors have helped me and how I will use my education.”