Pride and perseverence: from nomad to nurse



When the pilot announced that we were approaching New York City, the sky was filled with lights, reflecting off the water, sparkling like diamonds and jewels. It was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen! And all the skyscrapers! I couldn’t believe buildings could be so tall.

From the airport, we took a bus to our hotel—it had sheets and blankets and pillows; I had never seen soap and shampoo and conditioner. It’s hard to describe how this all appeared, coming from a refugee camp. I remember thinking, “Why me?” It was very humbling!

After I came to the U.S., I lived in Phoenix. My first day there, a social worker took me and two other Somali women to a grocery store. We were used to buying our food in little open markets, at best. But this was indoors and huge, filled with more food and stuff than any of us had ever seen. The social worker told us to get whatever we wanted. It was too overwhelming. I got a carrot cake and some orange juice. One of the other women got a bag of oranges.

With the help of other immigrants, I soon got a job as a dishwasher at The Ritz-Carlton. Many of my coworkers were from Mexico and they helped me learn Spanish. I had to learn English, of course, so I went to an English as a Second Language class—and failed! After one year, however, I could hold my own.

On my first day at work, the supervisor told me I needed to wear regular shoes. I only had the sandals I had on, and didn’t have any money to buy shoes. So he went to his locker and brought back his black dress shoes. I wore them every day until I could afford my own.

When I was getting my uniform, I was asked what size I wore, and I said, “What’s a size?” I was very skinny at that time, so they found a uniform that would fit. I know what size I am now, and I’d swap knowing that for being skinny again!

One day, a guest found out that there were Somali refugees working in the kitchen, and asked the management to bring him back there. So he came in, greeted us and asked to have his picture taken with me. Afterward I asked, “Who was that?” The Mexican guys broke out laughing, and said, “You silly girl, that was Muhammad Ali!”


My cousin invited me to move up to Minneapolis and stay with her in her apartment. I thought, “Why not?” So, I gave two weeks’ notice at the Carlton—just like that. I had been saving money by not spending on anything frivolous, living mainly on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. By the time I was ready to leave, I had $2,400 saved. I bought a plane ticket, and off I went.

After spending a dozen years in America learning English, becoming a U.S. citizen, going to school to learn the basics of reading and writing and math, marrying, having three children and becoming a nurse, unbelievably I started working for the Mayo Clinic.

When my job or life gets stressful, when my husband and I don’t agree, when I’m worried about tests or bills, I close my eyes and relive my most peaceful moments in Somalia, hearing the birds singing, getting leaves from the trees for the cows, swimming in the river. The whole place was free of cars, buses and trucks; there were no air conditioners humming in the background, no streetlights to dim the stars at night, no TVs with their constant chatter and advertising.

Greatest of all, there were no clocks: clocks to tell you when to get up in the morning; clocks to watch all day long, waiting for the end of the workday; clocks to remind you of how slowly the day is moving or how quickly; clocks to encourage you to wish the time away. There were only the sun and the moon and the stars, and from them, we scheduled our day. I really wasn’t aware that a day had 24 hours. I guess it’s the simplicity of life I miss.

Anger and hurt used to be my fuel, pushing me to do better. What fuels me now, though, are my kids and providing a good life for them. I want to show them what it is to grow up loved and cared for, proud of yourself and confident that you have someone to confide in without fear of repercussion. People ask me, “Oh, Habibo, how were you able to do what you did?” I say, “Plain and simple: sheer determination to survive, to improve and to make a better life for myself and those around me.”


A WINTER SURPRISE My cousin neglected to mention the weather in Minnesota before inviting me to move there. I had never seen snow, much less mountains of it with freezing, driving winds that take your breath away, freeze your face and almost knock you off your feet. And driving in it—forget it!

ROMANCE A young Somali and wanted to know if he could take me out for coffee. I was reluctant, but I said yes. We had a nice time. I liked him. After that, we talked quite often on the phone. He was interested in getting married, but I was not really ready. He was very persistent, so I said, “If you are really serious, call my family.” To my surprise, he called and they said yes. Within three months, Abdi and I were married. I got pregnant right away with my oldest daughter, Najma.

SCHOOL DAYS I was working two jobs, but a friend suggested that I go to school to become a nursing assistant. Before I could enroll, I had to take an English and math assessment test, which I failed! So I studied, and six weeks later, I went back to the community college, took the assessment test and passed. I got my first job in a nursing home. I really enjoyed it.

CAREER PATH After several years, I decided to become a nurse. I took all my prerequisites and was accepted into the LPN program. When my first term ended, I had a 4.0 grade point average and a plan to continue my studies.

FROM MINNEAPOLIS TO MAYO Abdi was working in Rochester, Minn., about an hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities. We decided to move there to cut the commute. As a nurse, I knew I’d be able to find a job. What I didn’t know was that I would find it at such a very prestigious place, where I still work. Once at the Mayo Clinic, I continued my studies online through The College Network. In 2011, I earned my associate’s degree in nursing from Excelsior College. Now that I’m an RN, about to receive my BS in nursing, I’m planning on getting my master’s. I’m often asked, “Why continue on so far? You have a good job and a nice house.” My answer is always “Because I can!” But above all, I want to show my girls and other girls around the world that anything is possible with determination and patience.

Adapted with permission from Conquering the Odds, Journey of a Shepherd Girl Copyright 2013, by Habibo Haji, RN and Joseph Patrick Culhane. 

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