Focus on International Students: Leila, student and survivor, yearns to give back

Globe with a magnifying glassThis is the first in a series of stories on SUNY Broome’s international students, who come from all over the globe. The college will celebrate International Week from Nov. 13 through 17. International students will share the cuisines of their homeland at the Dining Hall, and will visit the BC Center to read children’s books from their home countries.

Today we meet Leila Ahmed, a refugee from the African nation of Somalia. She asked that we not take her picture.

“What is our qabiil, our tribe?” Leila once asked her father.

His answer was swift and sure: “You are Somali.”

In a nation about to be torn apart by civil war, that simple statement served as an example of Abdullah Hajji’s principles – his love of country, his dedication to his job as chief of police. Decades later and a continent away, Leila Ahmed pulls up a picture of her father on her smartphone. Keen dark eyes peer from the black and white photo, over the ever-crisp uniform that he typically wore – a soldier to the heart, as his own father had been before him.

The soft-spoken Health Science student has the same keen eyes, the same love of family and country although that country is different now, on the other side of a vast ocean.

Leila Ahmed and her siblings grew up as children of privilege, lacking for nothing – most of the time. Her mother, divorced from her father, lived in an outlying village. During the summer, Leila and her siblings would visit and be treated as any of the village’s children – finishing chores before breakfast, milking cows, pounding grain into flour, and learning how to run and leap onto high branches.

Those visits stopped one summer, after her father objected to having his children experience hunger and hard labor, even on a temporary basis – but those country lessons ultimately saved Leila’s life, in a way that none of the family could have imagined.

The escape 

Mogadishu in 1980, by Maxamad. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mogadishu in 1980, by Maxamad. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The sound of gunfire woke her in the night, and she saw a guard attempting to peek in her window in the family’s Mogadishu mansion. She ran to her father, and the family fled the house through underground tunnels, barefoot and in their nightclothes, grabbing only some money to ease their passage.

They fled to their father’s office, not realizing that the guards were of the same tribe as the rebels – and on their side. Leila and the other women headed to their mother’s village, but her father stayed behind and was caught by the rebels.

The men that Abdullah had jailed as police chief had been set free – and armed. They promised a long and painful public execution, but a twist of fate saved the police chief’s life. In the deep night, a sympathetic guard gave him the opportunity to escape – although Abdullah, fearing a trap, refused the first two times. Finally, knowing his death was closing in, he fled into the night as the rebels slept – barefoot, like his children, and without his accustomed uniform.

“He came to us. His feet were swollen and bloody,” Ahmed remembered of her father’s arrival in the distant village where the family stayed hidden. “We jumped on him and kissed him.”

But someone eventually told the rebels the family’s location, and they were caught and held in terrible conditions. Once again, they escaped – knowing that no safety remained for them in their homeland.

They pushed on under cover of darkness, seeking to evade their pursuers as they walked ever onward. Sometimes villagers assisted, offering milk and bread for the journey; the refugees drank the milk and pocketed the bread for some days hence, performing the stark arithmetic that underlies endurance – I can travel three days without food. If I save this bread, how long can I last, how far can I go?

Those who were unable to keep going and lagged behind met even worse suffering, and death. Leila credits her mother’s early lessons in the country for toughening her, enabling her to endure the unendurable.

“You become a soldier. You don’t feel anything but to save your own life,” Ahmed said of those dark days.

They made it to the border, using the last of their money to find passage to Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea. The family then headed to Nairobi in Kenya, where there was a refugee camp with food, shelter, clothes – and above all, safety.

The family waited there for five years. Leila’s ex-husband took their children to the United Kingdom, where they are doing well. She remarried in the camp and eventually ended up relocating with her infant daughter in Upstate New York, joined by members of her family.

Her father wasn’t among them; he had died in the refugee camp.

The location of Somalia. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The location of Somalia. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Transition

The language of her adopted country proved difficult to learn, but Leila Ahmed persisted, attending classes at the American Civic Association. Starting over again – quite literally with the alphabet – proved daunting.

Back in Somalia, Leila’s father had wanted her to be educated and able to support herself, and she earned college degrees in biology and chemistry. In the United States, she learned that her credits and her degrees didn’t transfer. At 30 years old, she feared that the doors to opportunity and education were forever barred by the fact of her age.

“All my education had become zero,” Ahmed remembered. “First, I felt bad and discouraged and I give up. My heart was broken.”

Her teacher at the American Civic Association saw her despair and reached out. With broken English, Ahmed tried to explain her situation: She was old, spent, done, her options limited.

“No,” her teacher said. “You’re young. You can do whatever you want.”

And slowly, Leila came to realize that truth – and her opportunities blossomed outward.

‘It’s your time now.’

At her English as a Second Language teacher’s urging, she pursued the certification she needed to become a teacher’s aide – even though her grasp of the language was still unsteady. To study, her brother translated the texts into Somali, which she then learned and mastered. She went on to work at a local elementary school, a job she loved.

After five years, however, Ahmed’s mother fell ill and – with the support of her siblings – she quit her job to care for her. During her mother’s trips to the hospital, Leila noticed the nurses who provided such expert and compassionate care, and felt deeply grateful for their help.

She remembers one nurse in particular at Lourdes Hospital, who adjusted her mother in bed without prompting the slightest pain. It inspired awe: that ethic of care and compassion, and the professional who brought comfort and peace amid a trying time.

“She’s holding her like a mother who holds her baby,” Ahmed recalled. That experience provided the seed of a new vocation, a new calling: to use the remainder of her own life to provide care to those in need.

After her mother passed away, Leila eventually returned to work, training as a nurse’s aide at a local nursing home while her daughter finished high school.  Her daughter then offered her a deal: Go back to school, and she would help support her mother so that both of them could achieve their dreams. Leila’s siblings also offered their support.

Ahmed remembered her daughter’s words: “You put me in school, you paid your time for us. It’s your time now.”

At 50 years old, Leila Ahmed is a student once more, taking classes that will ultimately prepare her to transfer into SUNY Broome’s competitive nursing program.

“I’m always feeling old, but otherwise I’m okay. I’m getting As, and I’m thanking God for that,” she said with a smile.

Her daughter is now a student at Binghamton University, studying to become a physician. Her daughter’s long-term goal: To work for an agency such as the Red Cross, saving lives affected by violence. It’s in memory perhaps of her uncle, Leila’s brother, who perished of his wounds in the war.

Leila, too, plans to pursue a career in healthcare as a way to give back to the land that offered her shelter and opportunity. She has years of schooling ahead of her, but is firm in her desire to help. No matter how long she works as a nurse, it will all be worth it, she said.

“We got shelter and food and healthcare. We get good people to help us,” Leila Ahmed reflected on her experience in the United States. “I want to pay that back. This is my land and this is your land.”