Going Down Memory Lane


Dr FahimaDream Child: Dr Fahima Osman

By:Queen_Arawello First posted on Sep 26, 2009

Somalilandsun – The envelope arrived on a Tuesday, a sunny and hot June 4, 2000, just before 1 p.m.

All the Osmans remember it: The day before, Fahima and her mother had gone to the end of their street in Markham, Ont., to the brown super-mailboxes, shoving the key into 10A slot with their hearts pounding, only to find it empty.

They knew the mailman delivered just after noon. They knew McMaster University had sent their answer off on Friday. Fahima hadn’t slept all night; she had borrowed a cellphone to call the long list of family waiting to hear. On Tuesday, her mom, Zahra, who considers herself “a lucky woman,” insisted on being the one to open the mailbox and reach inside. It was a package so deliciously fat and bulging, they didn’t even have to open it. There was no mistaking what it said. Screaming, Fahima tackled her mother in a hug and kissed her. Zahra started crying. Her daughter was going to medical school.

“I used to wonder how people cried with joy,” Fahima, now 25, recalls. “That day I found out.”

The next big date is May 14, 2004, when Fahima Osman will have earned the right to put two long-dreamed-of letters before her name. And in that moment, the Somali refugee — whose parents had no formal schooling, whose father nearly drowned trying to flee a life of poverty, and whose high-school guidance counsellor once warned her not to aim so high — will become an original: the first Canadian-trained medical doctor in the country’s largest African community.

To reckon with how far Fahima has come, you have to look back more than 50 years, to an enterprising 10-year-old named Adam Osman, born to a long line of nomads in the desert. He spent his early years wandering in the dust with the sheep and camels, trading for water or food and living under makeshift canopies of branches and cloth. Years later, when his children refused to finish their suppers, he would tell them about getting rationed his one cup of milk every second day.

Adam’s mother died when he was little, and his father remarried. As the second-oldest boy among 12 children, he was sent to make his way in the northern city of Hargeysa, working for a local merchant and farmer. At 15, he learned to drive a taxi and he saved enough money to bring two brothers into the city, and send the youngest to school.

But he had ambition and he was clever, and with a bit more money, he managed to buy a one-way ticket to Yemen, where he paid 500 Yemen shillings — a fortune — to join 100 other stowaways on an unstable fishing boat bound for the United Arab Emirates. Finally, approaching land after days of motoring, the boat began to sink. Adam Osman could not swim. But while people churned helplessly in the water around him, he was pulled to safety by one of the other passengers and dropped on the beach.

His luck held in Abu Dhabi: He landed a job with a Canadian oil company, and worked himself up to a public-relations position that saw him organizing visas and ferrying around staff members. He paid for more siblings to go to school.

At 38, well past the age Somali men typically marry, he decided he was settled enough and sent home to his brothers and father to look for a wife. The name they produced was Zahra Ali, the 17-year-old daughter of thecheckingpulse done now-deceased merchant who had given him his first break.

Zahra was nervous about marrying someone so old, but she knew the way of these things. “I didn’t have a choice,” she says now. “I respected my family.” She was married in white in Abu Dhabi. Two years later, in April, 1978, their first daughter, Fahima, was born.

By the late 1980s, the Canadian oil company had come up dry. Adam was given six months’ notice, and with no job, he was not allowed to stay in the UAE. But the couple could not go home. They had six young children, and the political situation in Somalia was deteriorating, heading toward civil war. Zahra’s family fell on the wrong side: “If we had gone back, they would have killed me,” she explains, wiping a finger across her throat.

Her husband, who knew his way around bureaucracy, got them all visas to the United States, and they spent everything they had to fly to New York City. They went to Buffalo and crossed over to Canadian soil in July, 1989, carrying nothing but a few bags and a framed wedding picture, and declared themselves refugees. The children spoke some English, with heavy accents, but their mother none at all. On the ride to Toronto, she watched the taxi driver speak into his radio and worried they were being kidnapped. In the back seat was Fahima, springy curls down past her shoulders, at 11.

Their story was by no means the worst. In those years, a flood of Somali refugees — including many single mothers — came directly to Canada, arriving poor and traumatized by violence and famine. Most settled in Toronto, where they are now believed to form the largest African community in Canada.

How large is unclear. The 2001 census records less than 20,000 Torontonians who named Somali as their ethnic origin, but Farah Khayre, co-ordinator at the African Canadian Social Development Council, estimates the number at closer to 60,000. People move often, she says, and may list themselves as African or be nervous about sharing personal information. The community is very young (almost half below the age of 15) and very poor, with an average income per adult of about $15,000, less than half the average for Toronto as a whole.

Somalis in Toronto have struggled to find affordable housing for their large families, Ms. Khayre says, and the parents, who see a growing generational gap, worry about keeping their children in school and out of gangs.

But in the past decade, they have formed outreach organizations and women’s centres. The first Somali restaurant has been followed by about 30 more. They have begun to produce university graduates: While the three eldest Osman offspring remember being virtually alone in their first years at York University, they now see a crowd of Somali-Canadian freshmen.

In all that time, though, the community has yet to produce a doctor. There are at least two dentists, and an older, U.S.-trained psychiatrist in nearby Whitby, but Somali Torontonians have survived without a single family physician who could speak to them in their own language and relate to their largely Muslim culture. None of the Somali doctors who arrived as refugees have been able to get their foreign credentials recognized. Often, they work as counsellors or taxi drivers.

To Deqa Farah, a community mental-health consultant, Fahima’s achievement is both a symbolic triumph for her young community and a practical necessity: No matter what she does after medical school, others will have an example to follow. “It means we are here,” Ms. Farah says. “We are no longer a refugee community. We are citizens.”

In the Osman home in Markham, Fahima’s family is fast consuming a table loaded with baked chicken, rice and homemade samosas. There are at least four conversations under way.

Her youngest sister, Shukri, who turned 6 the day before, is proudly toting her new Barbies in a shopping bag. Her brothers, Mohamed and Hamza, have set up around a plastic table in the back yard with two cousins — their father, a banker in the UAE, was the first brother Adam Osman put through school.

Fahima’s mother straightens her hijab with an easy smile, and goes hunting for forks. Except during Ramadan, when they try to break the fast together, it is rare that her nine children are all under the same roof.

Though money is always tight, it is a given in the family that everyone will go to university — not college, their father tells them sternly, but a “brand name” education.

On that subject, Fahima’s parents, who can read and write only a little English, are of one mind. Zahra has been the sole breadwinner since Adam fell ill and retired from his valet job; she keeps the house and works nights making humidifiers on the Emerson factory assembly line. Flanked warmly by her daughters in the kitchen, she describes what she wishes for her children: “Just work hard and have a good life.”

Hodan, the second oldest, laughs. “Notice the emphasis on hard work. There is no room for laziness.”

The children have complied: Hodan, 23, graduates this year from York University and plans to get her MBA. Hibo, 22, is taking statistics. Mohamed, the eldest boy, is in computer science at Ryerson University. Huwaida, 18, starts next year at York; she wants to be a teacher.

And then there is Fahima, who came first and set the family bar. Her siblings, who gave her nicknames like Party Crasher and Mood Killer, tease her mercilessly about how she pulled all-nighters studying just to “get into” high school, how she decorated her room in A-pluses for motivation, how she made them watch medical documentaries and World Vision programs.

The conversation goes something like this:

“We’d watch them for hours,” Hibo says. “The worst ones were the leprosy shows. I still can’t get those out of mind.”

“It was to remind us to be more grateful for what we had,” Fahima protests.

“She once made me watch an episode of Law and Order and write a report on it,” sister Deqa, 13, says.

“To practise writing,” Fahima explains.