Mahdi’s term paper was a passionate plea to address and abolish female circumcision, which is still being practiced around the world at the rate of 8,000 girls and young women a day (World Health Organization, WHO 2011), a topic I was surprised, first, to find a man writing about, and then to learn that he is a practicing Muslim. But then came the real shock: he handed me his paper. Mahdi has no hands. He handed me the paper with two stumps ending a few inches past both elbows. My mind swam. How could he have overcome such a handicap, survived a civil war, assimilated into a new country, and become an MA candidate with such odds stacked up against him? He was happy, joyful even, with a very infectious laugh; and he is the father of 2 children.
Finally, after helping Mahdi with more than a dozen papers, at the end of the semester, I got up enough courage to ask him about his life. His amazing story emerged, and this is the story about how I met the most extraordinary person I have ever known.
I needed to find a job, which is not easy to begin with in these harsh economic times, much less for someone at the far end of middle age. So, I got rather creative, (I knew that a little chutzpa could still come in handy) and printed up some signs advertising what I enjoy and do best: proofreading foreign students’ papers. I trudged all over the neighborhoods between Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota tacking my little signs up in all the cafés, coffee shops, and student hangouts, and voilà! Within a week I had a steady trickle of work.
Friends told friends and one day I got a call from Mahdi Nur explaining in a thick Somali accent that he had a term paper he would like me to go over for him, (and, by the way, Minneapolis is home now to more than 50,000 recent Somali immigrants who have been fleeing the civil war in their country which has been escalating for decades). He asked if he could come along when a fellow grad student, Fosiyo picked up her assignment later that evening. I agreed. They are both in the Masters of Health and Human Services Administration program at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.
Mahdi was born on December 31st, 1969 in Hargeisa, Somalia. His farther, Samow Mohamed Nur and mother, Shaley Adam Ibrahim were prosperous farmers with herds of camels, goats, and cattle until the civil war escalated to the point that the residents of their small town felt it was time to flee. They packed only the belongings they and their 12 children could carry and walked into the barren countryside where they lived in hiding for the next few years, and where both parents eventually died. As the war drew even closer, the children, along with other villagers, left the countryside and, walking day and night, finally crossed the border into Egypt where they stayed and eked out a living among the millions of refugees Cairo had absorbed, creating camps within and then, when those were full, outside its city walls.
Mahdi enrolled in a computer course which, added to his training at Farah Omar High School back in Somalia and evening English classes, helped him eventually find a job as a translator for UNHCR, the United Nations High commission for Refugees,also known as the UN Refugee Agency, a United Nationsagency mandated to protect and support refugees at the request of a government in need. He worked there until August 28, 1982 — the day of the car accident. Mahdi, then 17, was the only one to have survived it. Seven Somali boys lost their lives in the crash.
Mahdi was in the hospital for a year. Once his multiple wounds healed and his upper arms were strong enough, he began a grueling year of rehab and physical therapy and attempted to resume his life. He tried different jobs, grateful that he was given a chance to prove himself. He worked as a shopkeeper, a receptionist, a translator, and finally as an administrative assistant. As his confidence grew, so did his dreams.
I asked Mahdi at this point in his story, if he was ever angry or bitter. How does one go on after such trauma? Where did he find the courage, strength, or faith, or whatever it is you need, to keep going? His answer was simple. In his own words he said, “No, I was never bitter or angry or argued with God. He controls my fate. He saved me for a purpose. I was spared because He has a plan for my life. How could I be mad? I have to only serve Him and I can be happy. He saved my life so I could have goals and visions, and I rely on Him always”.
Part of Mahdi’s dream was to come to the U.S. and help his people here. He decided that by becoming a social worker he could gain access both to his community in the U.S. and to the bureaucracy at the state level, making a difference there besides.
While awaiting the call that his application to immigrate had been approved, a process that can often takes years, Mahdi began experimenting with ways to build his own prosthesis. The medical system in Cairo was basically inaccessible, so overwhelmed with refugees, that he knew he didn’t stand a chance to get the help he needed any time soon. So began the year 1986 with numerous attempts at building his own prosthetic that would enable him to write and type. He puzzled day and night until he finally succeeded in overcoming yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle. After exhaustive attempts using various mediums, he hit upon a model that he fashioned out of leather. Stretching it over a mold he was able to attain perfect suction and wear his invention without straps or buckles. By drilling a hole near the ‘hand’ end of the extension he can insert a pen that will remain firmly in place. With the pen tip retracted, he is able to type on his laptop. One click of the pen, and he is writing checks and signing documents. He still uses it today, preferring the dexterity he was able to achieve, over the possibilities offered by American models.
Then his dream came true. He traveled to America on September 29th, 1993. He didn’t know anyone in the U.S. much less in Minneapolis. He also had no distant relatives who had immigrated before him. However, resilient Mahdi soon found friends who helped him negotiate the system and aided him in finding work and housing. Soon he bought a car and built his own custom steering wheel that allowed him to drive with his shortened remaining arms. Surmounting obstacles? Mahdi is a pro!
He became an American citizen in 2002. Mahdi was happy. Well, almost. He wanted a wife and a family to call his own. So he decided to travel back to Somalia in 2007 to find the woman of his dreams. And find her he did. Friends introduced him to every unattached young woman for miles around, bringing them all to the hero from America, but only one caught his eye. After getting to know Mahdi over time, Amran Ahmed agreed to be his wife, leave her family, and Africa, and travel to this America she had heard so much about.
Amran and Mahdi now have 2 children, Ayman Nur – a boy who is 2 ½, and Amjaad Nur who is a one year old. But that is not the end of the story. Mahdi is almost finished with his Master’s degree. Not one to take a back seat, Mahdi is already busy applying for the doctorate program in health administration and public policy. I have no doubt he will achieve that, too. It is an honor to be able to work with Mahdi. I have never met another person who was able to strive so relentlessly to surmount such a crippling set of circumstances and still come out so optimistic and hopeful. Mahdi is truly an inspiration to us all!