Although Mohamed Ibrahim left his hometown of Wajir, Kenya in 2007 on a scholarship to earn his Master’s Degree in Social Work at Washington University at Saint Louis, he always planned to return.
Born in Northern Kenya to Somali parents, Mohamed and his family were affected directly by the splitting of the Horn of Africa into different countries that European nations controlled.
His family home fell on the English side of the border, while the farm that had about 100 cattle and that produced corns and red beans was on the Italian side of Ethiopia.
The crossing of national lines to get to property they owned was only one of the hardships Mohamed’s family has endured.
As members of the Somali community in Kenya, they faced disappearances of loved ones-an aunt of his was abducted in 1969 at age 4 after her parents were killed and only resurfaced more than two decades later-massacres and official second-class citizenship in the African nation that produced one of the continent’s most famous leaders.
The burdens have only mounted in recent years, as a disputed election in late 2007 led to ethnic tensions and violence and as global warming’s toll has seen the water supply dry up and thirsty animals attack the residents.
Experiences like these have contributed to Wajir being known as a place with many mentally ill people.
Despite having about 4 million people, there are only four psychiatric nurses, including Mohamed, to meet the area’s mental health needs.
There are no psychiatrists.
Mohamed, who is one of many remarkable people I have met during the past 10 days at the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, intends to do something about this.
His vision: to create a sustainable community mental health center.
Mohamed understands the vicissitudes of funding and knows both that overseas support can both dry up and tie the community’s fate to external forces.
As a result, he seeks to make his center a government-supported one that will be a site of mental health treatment and healing. In addition, through people’s recounting their stories, the center will be a force for justice.
He has taken initial steps toward realizing his dream, talking with other participants about pledging their support, speaking with leaders in the Somali diaspora in Minneapolis and health workers in his home district.
Mohamed understands that the task ahead of him is a steep one, and he remains cheerfully undaunted. “It is something that is long overdue,” he said. “The challenge is huge, but I am confident that, if we get the support we need, it is something we can do.”