Obsa Hassan- Founder, Activist, and Former Refugee

Mohamed Malim

My name is Obsa Hassan, a father of two boys and married to Aisha Oromia Ali. I first came to the US in 1999 from Oromia, one of the nine states in Ethiopia. I came through Kenya with family members and settled in Columbia Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis. I started out from 10th grade here and graduated from high school in 2002 and went onto University of Minnesota.

It was a cultural shock for me. When we first moved from Oromia to Kenya, at least the Borana Oromos of Kenya spoke my native tongue Oromo which is widely spoken in Ethiopia, so going to that neighboring country did not feel like I was completely out of my element. But when we came from Kenya to the US in 1999 and we came to terms with the reality that we’re in a different country with a different culture and language, even though we went to school in Ethiopia – I attended school there through 8th grade – and some of the courses were in English, I was shocked to find that just having a simple conversation, how difficult it was. That made me realize that I really need to study hard and acclimate to the new environment. So the culture shock was the motivation to adapt. And also the weather – when we first arrived in April, it was green and spring air was nice, but before we knew it became really hot and we didn’t understand that. Then it didn’t take very long for the fall to settle in, and then the real weather of Minnesota, the winter, our first taste of winter was very bitter. First because we’re new, second I don’t think we were mentally prepared. You know people will tell you that until you experience something you won’t know the true meaning, so that was a salient point that I remember when we first arrived.

We were lucky enough to have family members who helped us to unite with here. Jamal Hassan, who brought us here, fled Ethiopia as a college student to Somalia, lived their through the civil war and came to America in 1990s. He attended a school in New York and graduated in masters in mathematics, and by the time we arrived he was already established in Minnesota. Someone who is established, someone who also values education, that made it easy for us. I mean the challenges are there to learn the language as a newcomer, to get over the cultural shock and acclimate, but the resources were available to us. The encouragement, unyielding encouragement that we got from Jamal, and also our aunt. As a community, the Oromo community is very large here, and knowing that there are people who look like you and talk like you that you can rely on as a newcomer, that was a source of our strength. Coming from a large family that helps each other out helped us a lot. The challenges were learning the language very fast and being proficient so that you can compete with your peers, because our aspiration was not just to learn English, not just to graduate from college, but to make a career out of our educational opportunities here. And we also left family behind. When you come to America, you don’t just live for yourself, you also work and support people that you left behind. So those are some of the challenges – juggling trying to be established here and at the same time needing to think about others who are reliant on you to be a source of their support.

When we first arrived and settled in Columbia Heights, the school was not as diverse at that time. I remember I can count people of different backgrounds on my fingers basically. A couple of Spanish families, Somali family, our Oromo family, and then a few graduates ahead of us who helped us to get established there. The stereotypes were that all refugees are the same and have the same experience. That refugees are people who didn’t have any knowledge. Maybe you don’t know the language proficiently, but you have a set of skills, and you also have the determination to make it to America. You meet immigrants with immense stories, very moving and very inspirational stories. The story of America is the story of immigrants. But at the same time there are people who have been here for a longer time, they look at you as “others” so you get othered. So then the stereotype is that all refugees are the same, which we’re not. I mean you can take my community for example. From East Africa alone we have a large Somali community here, an Oromo community, Eritrean community, other communities from Ethiopia. If you lump everybody together, you’re overgeneralizing and that’s not a good thing. There are similarities but there are also differences. If you went to Europe the Swedes are different from the Finnish, right? 

It is important to empower not just the refugees but also reach out to people who have been here for longer. You remind them that at one point their ancestors came from somewhere else, unless they’re Native Americans, and our destinies are tied together. We live in a very globalized world, the competition is very intense, things like healthcare are politicized. When the politics are so polarizing, we have to start connecting people at a human level. Whether you just came from Syria yesterday or you are a descendant of Senegalese who came here 400 years ago because of the legacy of slavery, at the end of the day, we are all in the same boat. As Americans we need to remind each other of that. Respecting diversity brings strength in the community, and we see that in America. People of all backgrounds come to the US because of the opportunities. I can give you a quick example. I recently took care of a person who is from Taiwan, and he told me a very powerful story. A group of friends just decided to go study in the US and they came. Not having any plans, they came to study and they made it. He said this country is fair as long as you work hard,  raised very accomplished children who are now adults and contributing to the US. Often times, we shouldn’t just look at the person who is in front of you, we should look at the opportunities that this person can create. And in America at least, in terms of job creations, in terms of being innovative, the first generation of immigrants are the most productive and the most innovative. So we need to connect on a human level.

I was having a conversation today with a professor from University of Minnesota. I am an advisor to Duluth Global Health Institute, which is based in the University of Minnesota’s Duluth campus. He was talking about his passion to serve, basically he called it a labor of love. So the labor of love is that I love medicine, and I also love helping people. So my success is not what I achieve, but what others can achieve through my assistance. As a community there’s a lot of work that we can do. Ultimately if it was all about me, I don’t necessarily need to get involved. But for a common good, when you do things together and collectively achieve something greater, that’s what I call success.

My college chemistry professor, Dr. Wayland Noland, who worked at the University of Minnesota from 1952 until he retired in his 80s, he was a very wise man. He once said “There’s always a smarter person who has accomplished more things than you,” but the little things that I have accomplished in my life are coming here as a refugee in 1999, graduating from high school, earning a scholarship to go to the U of M, obtaining my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and then contributing to my community, contributing to my growth. A lot of things I feel successful at are about self initiations. So after that, taking a gap year, working in a lab, and learning that working in a lab is not my thing, going back to medical school and finishing medical school here at the University of Minnesota, going to Internal medicine training, joining Allina Health as a hospitalist and working there since Fall 2015. But not just work there and go home, but get involved in the community, establish an accessible family clinic in Minneapolis to serve our community who are from East Africa and others, we launched that about a year ago. 

Being a part of that movement of helping people and I enjoy doing, those are the major accomplishments personally and career-wise. But at a community level, participating at the Oromo community board, I also care about universal human rights, so being an advocate and an active person in the community. As a doctor I have the means to travel because of my facilities I can travel and advocate on behalf of our people. Impacting not only locally here but also across the ocean in Ethiopia where we help our community to work together and work with the US Congress and make an impact through legislation. There’s a critical human rights resolution in House of Representative HR128 which was passed in February of 2018. The Oromo community and myself and the board, there was a lot of people across the US and our elected officials, we worked really hard to shed a light on a very repressive regime in Ethiopia that the US government viewed as an ally in a volatile east African region. But as a US citizen, sometimes our policy shouldn’t solely be based on interest, it should also be based on values. So we can say “Look, as a tax paying American citizen, I want my hard earned dollars to go to well meaning programs across the world,” we have to speak up. 

That is one of the biggest accomplishments of my community activities in the last few years, and we continue to work. We just recently got an election and we have a new president of the Oromo community and I just completed my term. Additionally, I have helped found Oromo Health Professionals Association in 2017 and served on the board, this allowed our team to provide health education especially during COVID19 and providing medical equipment and supplies for hospitals in Ethiopia.  I feel like that these are some of the highlights of my life so far.

America needs to look into its own creed. America needs to realize that it’s a land of immigrants. Then people like you and myself, like my wife, who really care about uplifting immigrants, need to be supported. Programs that are for uplifting the immigrant community like job creators, there are people who bring in sets of skills or bring in fresh perspectives. America yesterday is not the America today. We have to plan for the future and look ahead. Being exclusionary, this movement of anti-immigrant and xenophobia that exists in trump era will hurt America. America is not a small country, it’s a large country. As the leader of the free world, we need to led by example. Immigrants came because there's opportunity here. The Oromo Community of Minnesota works on refugee resettlement program with the state grants. Immigrants came because they thought that America is this shining light on the hill. If we truly reflect that, I think that the pie is large enough for all of us. The immigrants who come are here to contribute, not to become a burden. Because they come with a determination of “I can make it,” and they will contribute, I am an example of that. 

One piece of advice that I have is that a lot of people leave their country to come to America for opportunities, you also have to create opportunities in your homeland. Because as the globalization heightens, competition intensifies, and we just happen to be at a very transitional point where we are moving fast and change is accelerated by informational technology. So they come here for opportunities, but also in their homeland they can be a catalyst to create an impact. Once they make it here, they shouldn’t forget their homeland. We can play as a bridge between our homeland and America, the leader of the world which is now challenged by rising of the rest such as China and Russia. It’s very important that we don’t forget our roots. Another thing I wanted to emphasize for people who are already here is never forget their culture. I say that because if you are without culture, it’s easy to get lost. The human connection that your cultural background allows is very very important. Everybody should be modernized, but you should not forget your culture and I value my religion. Because once valued culture are lost, then it leads to societal decay. I want to emphasize that to people like me and others who are in the same situation. 

Through my advocacy work, I have come to realize that there are millions of people internally displaced refugees. A very small percentage of them get resettled in a host country, so there is a large number of people who don’t have a home, who are stranded in refugee camps, who are stateless. What I would wish for them is that whatever source that led to them becoming a refugee, I wish that gets resolved. Particularly our country is undergoing rapid political changese, we just had a very hopeful change in 2018, but the government that is currently in power is backsliding the gains earned by Ethiopian people (particularly the Oromo youth called Qeerro) who fought for genuine democratic changes, and that is leading to more refugees leaving. You might be familiar with Yemen which is undergoing civil war, and people take a long trek from Ethiopia through Djibouti, and then they get crammed into a small boat and come to Yemen to pass through a war zone and get to Saudi Arabia to find better opportunities. The source of that could be economic, yes, but you don’t find a democratic country that is hungry. So what I wish for a lot of refugees who are stuck in a difficult position is that the people who are in charge of their country get a sense that continuing the status quo will lead to more human suffering. My wish is that some of those man-made obstacles and disasters like what is happening in Oromia and the Tigray region, if the leaders can sit down and flush it out, because the problem today will have a lasting impact on generations to come. My wish is that these structural and communal problems are solved in their homeland because nobody wants to leave their home. People could be poor, but they still won’t want to leave their home. My wish is that some of these hotspots in the world, some of these conflicts that are leading to millions being displaced, resolved, and hopefully people will find some semblance of peace. If peace reigns, economic opportunities can be created. If we allow flow of technology and trade between nations, that will uplift millions and millions of people from poverty.

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