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From refugee camp to medical school: U of U grad tells her story

Courtesy: University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Thursday is graduation day at the University of Utah, and one of the student commencement speakers has quite the story: just five years ago she was in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

Hodan Abdi says her family arrived at the camp in 2008 after fleeing their home country of Somalia. In the refugee camp, she would wake up at 2 a.m. to study by candlelight, since she spent the day cooking and cleaning and helping take care of her family.

“Day to day, you worry about where you are going to get water. When we first woke up, we had to travel [a] very long distance to get water from the reservoir. Getting water every day takes up a lot of time. Also getting charcoal, because we used charcoal to cook food. There was no stove,” said Abdi.

“I have [the] motivation to work hard because I have a lot of friends who do not have a chance to go to school or do what they want to,” said Abdi.

They were relocated to Utah in 2013. Abdi says it was overwhelming as they learned how to navigate the roads and so many other things. She enrolled in Salt Lake Community College before transferring to the U. But she did a lot of that alone.

“When we first came here, my family moved to Minnesota after six months, so I was alone here. I was really lost,” she said, becoming emotional. “But now I know. I learned a lot, and got a lot of experience.”

Abdi says she loved her chemistry and biology classes at the University of Utah and is grateful for the professors who helped her along the way. She has been accepted to medical school in Minnesota in the fall. She says she wants to work as a doctor in a refugee camp, and help others like her sister, whose baby died because of the poor medical care there.

“My biggest inspiration comes from living in a refugee camp, where there was only one doctor for 10,000 people,” Abdi said. “There were so many people who would get sick and die from preventable diseases. I want to do something to help those people. I have all the opportunities I need here, so, why not?”

The University of Utah asked her to be one of the commencement speakers after hearing her story. But Abdi says she is not the only one with challenges.

“Here in the U.S. even, life is hard. I have my friends who struggle with school, and they have their own struggles. I feel like we have our own struggles, wherever we are.”

Abdi says there were also challenges with being a woman seeking education, saying nearly 80 percent of her high school classmates were male, as most women her age got married and had children instead of pursuing school.

“My mother always encouraged me to go to school and study because she didn’t have the opportunity to go,” Abdi said. “She always said education was my way out — my future. So, I’m not just doing this for myself. I’m doing it for people like my mother, my community and friends who didn’t get the chance to go to school. I want to do better for all of them.”

“My life is so different than it was in the refugee camp,” she said. “There, you are trying to survive. Here, you get the opportunity to make your life better. Having access to education is like being rich.”