by Sally James
When Dr. Anisa Ibrahim was a child at a refugee camp in Kenya, she remembers admiring the health care workers who took care of the people there. She began telling people she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. In her homeland of Somalia, war had made living impossible, so her family fled the country when she was 5 years old in 1992.
Ibrahim is now the boss of the pediatric clinic at Harborview Medical Center. Earlier this year, the Carnegie Corporation of New York named her a Great Immigrants honoree of 2021.
In hindsight, she doesn’t think her young self completely comprehended what it meant to become a doctor.
“I did look forward to seeing my pediatrician and I did look forward to learning and I was curious. … I was also very determined. I was one of those kids who is ‘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 medicine attracted her. Ibrahim’s younger sister had measles as a child because she was not immunized like Ibrahim and her brother. She remembers that doctors seemed to be powerful healers. She also welcomed the yearly physicals at Harborview from 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 from being an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. In an interview with CNN, Graham said seeing Ibrahim become the head of the clinic at Harborview was one of her own career highlights.
When Ibrahim’s family arrived in the U.S. in 1993, they settled in Seattle’s Beacon Hill. Ibrahim still lives in the area with her three children, ages 10, 8, and 17 months.
But just arriving in the U.S. didn’t make Ibrahim’s path to medicine clear. As a child, she did not see anyone who looked like her when she looked around at health professions.
“My identity is multiple things. There are things that are visible: I’m Black, I’m Muslim. And there are things that are not visible: I’m Somali American, I’m a refugee, English was not my first language,” she said.
In her classroom life, she remembers being hard working but rarely speaking up in class because she was shy. While attending Franklin High School, she felt that her ambitions for college and a profession were not always supported. When she asked one counselor about prerequisites for college and ways she could excel, she remembers they told her, “Why don’t you just concentrate on finishing high school.”
Fortunately, she became part of a program called Upward Bound, which supports families with economic hardship in completing high school and pursuing college. The program helped her and her family understand the steps that are part of the pre-college journey, including testing like the SAT.
Indeed, she did graduate high school, then college. Ibrahim studied at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, graduating in 2013. She did a residency at Seattle Children’s Hospital and joined Harborview as a general pediatrician in 2016. Today, in her own practice at 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 realities that other doctors might not fathom.
She often asks a family “where have you been” knowing that they likely are from one place but have probably lived in a few others on their way here. She asks them if they have received any medical care in refugee camps and knows how patchy that might have been. She makes sure to ask them what language they prefer to speak and whether they read the written version of that language.
Ibrahim knows there is a culture in medicine of handing 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 connected. “People may not read a language, but they speak five languages fluently.”
Her lived experience also helps her to intervene with school authorities about families’ needs where necessary. Sometimes, she says, children may need specialized services at school, but some families may be too respectful of teachers for cultural reasons to ask for anything extra.
“If there are any difficulties, we not only encourage the parents — we actually offer our support to do it with them, so that they know they have specific rights and their children have rights,” says Ibrahim.
She also knows that for some refugee children, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may linger from violence and war they have experienced. Her own experience of war as a child helps her talk to families about trauma and mental health and how even things like Fourth of July fireworks might trigger a child’s fears.
Just existing as the role model that 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 wears a hijab,” in the clinic.
Ibrahim feels seeing someone who looks like them in a position like hers is powerful.
“When my patients comment on that, it’s very meaningful,” she says. “Because even if they don’t want to become 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 compromise any part of their identity to be able to do that.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Dr. Ibrahim attended Franklin High School rather than Ballard High School.
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at www.seattlesciencewriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.
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