20 years ago, a little girl in Somaliland wanted to become a doctor
when she grew up. Yesterday, Fahima Osman became the first
Canadian-trained MD of the country's largest African community
By ERIN ANDERSSEN, Globe and Mail Saturday, May 15, 2004
When Fahima Osman was 6, she vowed to her mother that she would become a
"God willing," her mother had answered, "you will be." It was, then,
the wide-eyed boast of a little girl, who did not know that her
family would end up fleeing to a new country as Somali refugees five
years later, spending their last penny on the trip, abandoning their
every possession, but for a few bags and a framed wedding picture.
But the dream held -- through all-night study sessions squeezed
between part-time jobs to help pay the bills, against the high-school
teachers who doubted her, even when she looked around and realized
that she would be the first.
For 20 years, the dream held.
Yesterday, with her parents and cousins and eight siblings watching
from the audience at Hamilton Place, Fahima Osman stood with her
classmates from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and recited
the words of the Hippocratic oath to make it official: she is now the
first Canadian-trained doctor of the country's largest African
"She is famous," said Abdi Osman, a program co-ordinator at Dixon
Community Services in Toronto, which serves mainly Somali newcomers.
Mr. Osman (no relation) calls Dr. Osman "a role model for the youth"
of a refugee community that is still young and struggling, with an
average adult income of about $15,000, according to the 2001 census.
In the past decade, Somali Torontonians have formed outreach
associations, started restaurants, celebrated the first wave of
university graduates. But they have gone without a doctor who could
speak to them in their own language, who understood their
predominantly Muslim culture -- until now.
"We congratulate her with our hearts. It is a great thing, to turn a
refugee into a doctor. It is practical evidence that whoever wants to
achieve the highest positions in this country can do so."
In July, Dr. Osman begins her residency in general surgery at the
Toronto General Hospital.
The residency is a five-year program for which, in true character,
she had already begun studying, even before she had written her final
seven-hour exam for medical school on Tuesday. "I have to look at it
as a journey,'' she said. "I am just finishing one part, and looking
forward to the next part."
And planning, always planning, how she will make her mark -- both in
Canada, the country that welcomed her family, and in Somalia, where
the people so desperately need her skills.
Since The Globe and Mail profiled Dr. Osman last June as part of the
New Canada series, her story has been told and retold on Somali
websites around the world. She once Googled her name, on a lark, and
was shocked by the dozens of sites that bounced back with the details
of her life -- how her father, Adam, scrimped and saved his way out
of the desert, and found work in the United Arab Emirates; how the
young family came to Canada after his job ended because they could
not go home to civil war; how the nine Osman children were told, no
matter how tight the budget, they were expected to get a
"brand-name'' education. And setting the course, as the eldest, was
Dr. Osman, with her relentless work ethic, and compassion.
"I am feeling fantastic," her father said of her graduation. "Her
title is now Dr. Osman. It is a long way to come."
"It is a dream, finally," sighed her mother, Zahra, who first pulled
the bulging McMaster envelope from the mailbox, under the noonday sun
on June 4, 2000. She has gotten used to being introduced around the
city as Dr. Osman's mother.
When she was first interviewed last year, Dr. Osman expressed her
disappointment with not being able to find a mentor; she was promptly
contacted by Andy Smith, the head of general surgery at Sunnybrook
and Women's Hospital, who has become a close adviser. "I was struck
by her dynamism and focus," Dr. Smith said. "In many ways, she is
emblematic of all that is right in this country.'' Flooded by e-mail,
she is currently in regular contact with about 75 young immigrants,
many of Somali origin, who are hoping to follow her path into medical
school. She typically spends one day of each weekend, just responding
to e-mail. Their questions, she says, sound so much like the ones she
had when she was first trying to get in.
"When you see the competition, you feel so hopeless, you just want to
give up," she recalls. "I wanted to show them that I am just an
average girl, I worked hard and I got in."
But what really got Dr. Osman thinking was a letter she received from
her 10-year-old cousin back in Somalia, who told her that he would
also like to be a doctor some day. "The thing is," she says, "it is
impossible for him, really. There are no medical schools there." So
Dr. Osman plans to split up her residency with a year-long masters
degree in medical education or a related program so that she can work
at a teaching hospital, and share her knowledge during regular stints
back in Somalia.
She has a new dream now: that some day, she might see the opening of
Somalia's first medical school.
Other articles about Dr. Fahima Osman
• Dream Child - Globe and Mail
• Education and health