Somali Refugee Leads US Pediatric Clinic that Gave Her a Healthy Outlook

Anisa Ibrahim was six years old when she came to the United States as a Somali refugee in 1993. The family settled in Seattle, in the northwestern state of Washington, where the girl and her four siblings got health care at the Harborview Medical Center Pediatric Clinic.

Now a pediatrician herself, Ibrahim is medical director of the clinic, overseeing a dozen other doctors whose patients, like hers, include many immigrants.

When she got the promotion in September, “it felt like everything that I had been working for had come to fruition and my story had really, really come full circle,” Ibrahim, 32, told VOA’s Somali Service in a phone interview. “I really thought back [on] everyone and everything that made this moment possible for me.”

Among those Ibrahim credits is the doctor who treated her in childhood, after her family had moved from a Kenyan refugee camp where they’d sought relief from Somalia’s civil war in 1992.

She had told her pediatrician, Elinor Graham, that she wanted to follow in that profession. Graham’s response “really stuck with me,” said Ibrahim, repeating the words she’d heard long ago: ” ‘You know, Anisa, I want you to become a pediatrician as well. And when you do, I want you to work here so I can retire.’ “

Ibrahim studied at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, graduating in 2013. She did a residency at Seattle Children’s Hospital and joined Harborview as a general pediatrician in 2016.

Along the way, she married and had two daughters. She also encountered doubters.

“Going to medical school, going to residencies, there are always people who discourage you … simply because of how you look, simply because of your race, your religion, your nationality,” Ibrahim said. “But, you know, most recently I’ve just been overwhelmed with the amount of support I’ve gotten from everyone.”

Communication and trust

One of her backers is Brian Johnston, Harborview’s chief of pediatrics.

Along with providing medical skills, Ibrahim — part of a diverse staff — is able to telegraph acceptance to immigrant families that might identify with her, Johnston said.  And that can lead to better care.

“When there is concordance between a health care provider and a patient in terms of their race, ethnicity or culture, the communication can be improved, the trust is improved and the patient’s adherence to the plan that is formulated is improved,” Johnston said. “So having a diverse workforce among our positions improves our ability to deliver good health care to a diverse population.”

At Harborview, Ibrahim, who also serves as president of the Somali Health Board, works closely with immigrants and refugees. In her official bio, she describes herself as “committed to caring for low-income, socially vulnerable populations” with limited English skills.

“I can say I know life is tough in a refugee camp,” the doctor told K5 News (KING-TV Seattle) last month. “I know life is tough settling into a new country and not speaking English and not knowing where the grocery store is and being isolated from the rest of your family.”

‘Powerful’ role model

Not only does Ibrahim work to improve the health and conditions of children who are in the same position she was, but she also hopes to combat any negative perceptions about newcomers.

“We are in a very polarizing time where there is negative rhetoric about immigrants. That’s really being used to dehumanize human beings, to demonize people for wanting what other people would want: safety, an education, a good life for their children,” she said.  

“It’s really, really important for people to go back to … a humanistic approach and not a political approach because this is not a political issue. It is about giving people opportunities,” said Ibrahim, a U.S. citizen. “So I think [through] my story, I want people to know that every single individual, every single human being, is capable of achieving great things.”

Johnston said Ibrahim is, indeed, a source of inspiration.

“We are a pediatric clinic that serves a large immigrant population, and for those kids, it’s really powerful to have a role model in a leadership position who looks like them: a woman, a woman of color, a woman who shares their experience in terms of forced migration, being a refugee in a new country,” Johnston said. “I think it sends a message to those kids that this career, even leadership in this career, is open to people of their experience and their background.”

Last week in a Twitter post, Ibrahim suggested she’s making a positive impact, as her own pediatrician once did.

“Today my 11-year-old patient told me that she wanted to be a doctor and a scientist

do research. She then said, ‘You can’t do both, I need to pick.’ Her eyes lit up when I said, ‘No you don’t, you can do both!’ Made my day.”

Written By

Asha Ibrahim Aden

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