by Sally James
When Dr. Anisa Ibrahim was a child in a refugee camp in Kenya, she remembers admiring the health workers who looked after the people there. She started telling people she wanted to be a doctor growing up. In her homeland of Somalia, the war had made life impossible, so her family fled the country when she was 5 years old in 1992.
Ibrahim now runs the pediatric clinic at Harborview Medical Center. Earlier this year, the New York-based Carnegie Corporation named her a 2021 Great Immigrants Honoree.
In retrospect, she thinks her young self didn’t quite understand what it meant to be a doctor.
“I was looking forward to seeing my pediatrician and I was looking forward to learning and I was curious. … I was also very determined. I was one of those kids who says, ‘I want to know. I want to learn “I want to lead. I want to figure things out,” she told the Emerald.
But she can see why drugs attracted her. Ibrahim’s younger sister had measles as a child because she had not been vaccinated like Ibrahim and her brother. She recalls that doctors seemed to be powerful healers. She also welcomed the annual checkups in Harborview of her own pediatrician, Dr. Eleanor Graham, and the way the doctor helped her whole family.
Graham encouraged Ibrahim’s dreams of becoming a doctor. Today, Graham is retired as an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. In an interview with CNN, Graham said seeing Ibrahim head the Harborview clinic was one of her career highlights.
When Ibrahim’s family arrived in the US in 1993, they settled on Beacon Hill in Seattle. Ibrahim still lives in the area with her three children aged 10, 8 and 17 months.
But arriving in the US did not clarify Ibrahim’s path to medicine. As a child, she saw no one like her when she looked around at health professions.
“My identity consists of several things. There are things that are visible: I am black, I am Muslim. And there are things that are not visible: I am Somali American, I am a refugee, English was not my first language,” she said.
In her classroom, she remembers working hard, but rarely spoke in class because she was shy. While attending Ballard High School, she felt that her aspirations for college and a profession were not always supported. When she asked a counselor about college requirements and ways she could excel, she remembers them telling her, “Why don’t you just focus on finishing high school.”
Fortunately, she became part of a program called Upward Bound, which supports families with economic difficulties completing high school and pursuing college. The program helped her and her family understand the steps involved in the pre-college journey, including tests such as the SAT.
She did indeed finish high school and then university. Ibrahim attended the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, graduating in 2013. She did a residency at Seattle Children’s Hospital and joined Harborview in 2016 as a general pediatrician. Today, in her own practice in Harborview, she sees many patients who are newly arrived families, resettled refugees, or immigrants. Her lived experience means she asks those patients questions and understands the reality that other doctors may not grasp.
She often asks a family “where have you been” knowing they are probably from one place but probably lived in a few others on their way here. She asks if they have received medical care in refugee camps and knows how patchy that may have been. She definitely asks them which language they prefer to speak and if they read the written version of that language.
Ibrahim knows there is a culture in medicine to hand out printed papers to patients, and if this isn’t the best way to communicate, her clinic will find a better way. She laughs at ideas that intelligence and literacy are linked. “People may not read a language, but they speak five languages fluently.”
Her lived experience also helps her to intervene with the school authorities on the needs of families where necessary. Sometimes, she says, children may need specialized services in school, but some families may have too much respect for teachers for cultural reasons to ask for something extra.
“When there are issues, we don’t just encourage the parents – we even offer our support to do it with them so they know they have specific rights and that their children have rights,” says Ibrahim.
She also knows that for some refugee children, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can linger after the violence and war they have experienced. Her own wartime experience as a child helps her talk to families about trauma and mental health, and how even things like 4th of July fireworks can stir up a child’s fears.
Simply existing as the role model she never had excites Ibrahim for the future of her own children and of her patients. It makes her happy to hear a child say, “Look, mommy. That doctor is wearing a hijab,” at the clinic.
Ibrahim finds it powerful to see someone who resembles them in a position like hers.
“If my patients comment on that, it makes a lot of sense,” she says. “Because even if they don’t want to be a doctor, they see themselves in higher education and they see themselves in a profession. But they also see that they don’t have to give up any part of their identity in order to do that.”
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at www.seattlesciencewriter.com. She has written about biotechnology, cancer research, and health literacy and has volunteered to serve as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.
📸 Featured Image: Dr. Ibrahim with a baby patient. (photo by Susan Gregg, UW Harborview)
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