Africa Can Learn from Successful Refugees and Immigrants Abroad

Dr. Anisa M. Ibrahim. Photo. University of Washington.Medical Center

The terms “refugee”, “immigrant”, or “asylum seeker” often conjure up images of people climbing fences and walls, or crammed in life rafts crossing dangerous oceans and seas. The media and the Internet are full of pictures and videos of refugees desperate to escape atrocities. Women can be seen carrying young children and babies crying because they’re too hungry or scared or both. These migrants usually flee in search of peace.

But that peace is elusive, as people in host countries often turn out to be as hostile and unwelcoming as the home the refugees fled. Cries of “They’re draining our resources! The crime rate has risen! They don’t speak English!” are all too familiar. In addition to that, the rise of right-wing nationalism in the west have emboldened those making racist remarks against refugees and immigrants. When xenophobic citizens in the hosts countries blame people fleeing persecution for everything wrong that happens in the community, they are in a way conducting war on the same victims. The war is psychological, but it’s still war.

But most refugees persevere through the hostility and create livelihoods, where they live in obscurity in their newfound lands. Some like Dr. Anisa M. Ibrahim defy all odds and become even more successful than the racists who spend their lives tormenting refugees. Dr. Ibrahim is a refugee from Somalia, who came to the USA when she was 5 years old. In the midst of all that animosity, she became a physician and an assistance professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington Medical Center. And recently, the university appointed her the Medical Director of Harborview Medical Center’s pediatrics clinic. It is the same place that treated her when she was new refugee.

“Thank you!” she wrote on Twitter upon her appointment. “Harborview children’s clinic was my primary care provider when I came to Seattle as a refugee in 1993. 26 years later, I am more than honored to serve as the medical director for the clinic that once took care of me as a patient. Grateful.”

According to the medical center’s website, Dr. Ibrahim has dedicated her career to ensuring that refugees, especially those with low levels of English proficiency, are have access to resources to ensure they live healthy lives.

“I’m not this exceptional human being,” Dr. Ibrahim told CNN. “There are millions of refugees right now who are not being given the opportunities that I have been given. And if they were, they would do incredible things.”

Now, you ask,  what has this got to do with Africa? And also why are we talking about about someone who probably does not remember her time as a refugee? Well think about this, had she stayed in Kenya and integrated into the Kenyan society, instead of coming to the United States, she might have gone to school but chances are that she wouldn’t have gone beyond high school.

She would be a stay-at-home mom or maybe — just maybe — she would be running her husband’s small kiosk selling groceries. Her incredible knowledge of science and math would have been discouraged by her teachers, society, and possibly her family.

Again, there is no doubt that Dr. Ibrahim’s journey in America has been rocky. Of all African refugees and immigrants in the United States, no single community is vilified more than Somalis. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Somalis, who are predominantly Muslim, have been at the receiving end of outrage from right-wing extremists, who view Muslims as enemies of America. Hateful messages from right-wing have grown even more vicious with the recent election to Congress of Ilhan Omar, herself a Somali who came to the United States as a child refugee. Still, there is enough goodwill in America to allow a refugee like Dr. Ibrahim to flourish, albeit in the midst of animosity.

Unfortunately, we can’t say that about most African countries.

Despite the consensus that education is the key to the future, many talented African students on the continent do not get the support and encouragement to pursue the careers they love. Many more are put in the “failures” category because they did not do well in one or two minor subjects, therefore missing out on a most sort-after university education.

But why is this?

Do we blame the teachers for not providing the much needed encouragement to students, or the government for setting that trend? Could we fault parents for jumping on the teachers bandwagon of not encouraging their children to pursue that which they love? Whatever the reason is, the fact is that some of the most talented African students are being labeled as “failures” based on nothing but a single national examination. When the same students get accepted into universities in America, Europe, and Australia, they thrive and contribute to the economy of their new surrogate homelands.

And what happens to Africa? The continent is left with their crème de la crème, many of whom end up without work and no future.

So what can the continent do?

Africa should nurture its own talent. Be on the lookout for children with unique gifts and focus on making sure they follow their dreams. The continent should realize that not everyone is university material, but also that failure to go to a university doesn’t mean one cannot become a successful citizen who can contribute to society. Children need to learn that it’s okay to be a carpenter, blacksmith, bricklayer, roofer, welder, mechanic, plumber, tailor, cobbler, chef, sculptor. The journey to an Africa that is prosperous and self sufficient seems long and treacherous  — and it is. But it is doable. It should begin at home with parents encouraging their children to be the best they can in whatever they do. It should continue to schools with teachers motivating kids, and to the workplace, with employers who shouldn’t solely rely on university educated people.