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Student heads home to Somalia

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By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Maxamed Ibrahim has two families on two continents — one in Somalia, where he lost his mother, father and three sisters to famine and civil war 11 years ago, and another in Hinesburg, where he moved at the age of seven with his adopted mother, Dorothy Delaney. The humanitarian aid worker had found Ibrahim wrapped in an old blanket in the corner of a feeding center in Africa, unresponsive and ill with tuberculosis.

Now a senior at the Gailer School, 18-year-old Ibrahim will speak at the Middlebury school’s open house on Thursday, Dec. 7, about his journey back to Africa last summer, where he met his only surviving natural relative, his uncle. It became clear after this meeting that he belonged to two cultures and two homes.

Ibrahim will be joined at the open house presentation by two more Gailer student speakers who traveled to Africa last summer: junior Annabelle Maroney, who worked in two orphanages in Ethiopia and sophomore Anna Hallman, who went to Ghana with Village Harmony, a Vermont organization dedicated to world music and harmony singing activities. The event will begin at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Ibrahim spend his early years with his sisters and parents, who were farmers, in a small town in Somalia. When famine broke out in 1993, the family’s livestock started dying. Ibrahim’s parents had only two camels left when it became clear they would have to leave home to survive. So they killed the animals for food and began a six-day walk to the closest town where the government regularly stored surplus food for people with nothing to eat.    

“Famine in Africa is like winter in Vermont,” Ibrahim explained. “It’s going to happen. Get ready for it.”

But Ibrahim’s family couldn’t prepare for the effects of the Somali civil war like they could for the inevitable famine.

When they arrived at the food center, it was swarming with starving people and there was no food left. In fact, there was no government left. In 1991, rebel forces had overthrown the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and the northern part of the country seceded as Somaliland, catapulting the nation into chaos. 

“The Rebel army needed food and the government army needed food, so they took what the food centers had and there wasn’t anything left for the rest of us,” Ibrahim said.

Weakened by hunger, Ibrahim became sick with TB. It was customary to leave the feeding center after a day, which is probably what his family did, though he said he doesn’t remember. Most people stayed long enough to pick up some food stamps and moved on. But Ibrahim couldn’t move.

Late at night, someone noticed the young boy on the floor. They called the local clinic but the doctor refused to make a visit. He didn’t want to go out there in the middle of the night. Somehow, Delaney, who worked at the clinic as a midwife, overheard the conversation. She insisted they help the boy and decided she would do it herself.    

Back at the clinic, Ibrahim began to recover. But it was a slow process because the World Health Organization would not provide the TB treatment at that time.

“They thought it was a waste,” Ibrahim said, because it requires that the afflicted person stay in one place for a certain amount of time. “Somalis don’t do that,” he said. “They’re nomads.”

Ibrahim’s saving grace came when the United States and United Nations gradually moved out of Somalia and other African nations came in. An army doctor from Botswana made a visit to Delaney’s clinic, took one look at Ibrahim and said, “He’s got TB.” Delaney said she knew, but they couldn’t get the needed medicine.

“I’ve got some right here,” the doctor said, and he pulled it out of his pocket and gave it to Ibrahim.

Delaney let Ibrahim live in her compound once he was fully recovered. She wanted to bring him back to America and adopt him.

MOVE TO VERMONT

It was the beginning of another complicated process, since the U.S. had no protocol for adopting children from a country with no government. So she took him to Kenya, where after about two years, she was able to complete the paperwork to make him her son.

But Delaney made agreements with more than just the government. She worked out a deal with Ibrahim’s Somali elders, which included three promises: she wouldn’t change her adopted son’s name, she wouldn’t change his religion and she would bring him back to visit Somalia in three years.

The last promise was the only one she couldn’t keep. Delaney had been away from the United States for about 15 years, having first gone to Africa with the Peace Corps and stayed to work for organizations like International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and the Red Cross/Red Crescent.

She felt that it was important for her to move to a place where she could stay put for a while, as it was important for Ibrahim to remain under the care of American doctors who treated him for chronic health issues. A native Vermonter, Delaney moved back to the Green Mountain State, where she still had family. She has worked as a registered nurse since then.

Ibrahim says his mother stresses to people she meets that adoption of children in need from other cultures is not actually that difficult. “She likes to say that she doesn’t have a lot of money, she’s not famous, she doesn’t need to be a superhero to do this,” he said.

Ibrahim finally returned to Africa last summer. Unable to go to Somalia because the country is once again engulfed in civil war, he and Delaney went to Kenya where they met up with his only surviving relative, his uncle, Abbi Nqur.

“I met him and it seemed like there was a gap between us,” he said. “It’s strange. I don’t really know him. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it. If I had known what it would be like, I would have thought twice about going, but it would have been a mistake not to go.”

FEELS LIKE HOME

Ibrahim said after a couple days in Kenya this summer, Africa started to feel like home.

“I always thought home was about the land and the buildings, but it’s about the people,” he said. “It made coming back to Vermont so much better. I was itching to get back.”

In Africa, Ibrahim discovered he had two homes. For now, he plans to spend a little more time in this one, to go to college next year in Maine or Canada. But he promised himself he would visit Africa again, the very next chance he gets.

“Vermont feels like a home, I don’t know about the rest of the country,” he said. “I thank the United States, because without it I wouldn’t have survived. The doctors here saved my life. But I always consider myself an African, a Somali, before I consider myself an American. I’m an American by culture, a Somali by blood. Not that being from Somalia is anything to be proud of really. I mean the country has destroyed itself. I’m not proud of that. But I’m proud to be a part of the people.”

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