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From janitor to nurse: How an Ethiopian immigrant seized his American dream

August 4, 2018

Growing up in Ethiopia, Hakeem Abdulwahab thought only guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone could live the American dream.

Id watch Hollywood action movies and see that its clean here, its beautiful, everyone has cars, he said. But America was like a dream country ... impossible to get to.

With a little luck and a lot of perseverance, Abdulwahab at 36, has achieved his version of the American dream: Once he scrubbed toilets at one of the top childrens hospitals in the country. Now he works there as a nurse.

If it was cleaning a toilet, cleaning a floor, getting a towel or making a bed, whatever task he was assigned to do at any given moment, he did it with conviction and he did it with heart, said Tammy Sinkfield-Morey, nursing supervisor at Gillette Childrens Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul.

Now hes progressed from one of our lower level positions to one of our most admired positions.

One of eight children, Abdulwahab grew up in Jimma, Ethiopia, about 220 miles southwest of the capital city of Addis Ababa. Abdulwahab helped his father produce and sell coffee, one of the only ways to make money, he said. Business often was fickle, due to a cholera outbreak and the amount of time 3 to 5 years it took for Arabica trees to produce fruit.

We were so poor then, he said. Some days I didnt eat anything. Basic necessities like food and water were a luxury.

As a teenager, Abdulwahabs parents sent him to live with his older sister in Addis Ababa so that he could attend high school.

On his summer breaks, he learned English with the intention of going to college. When that time came, Abdulwahab couldnt afford college, so he returned home to once again help his family with the coffee business.

I always hoped to work and send money to my Mom and Dad, he said. I will sacrifice my life for them.

In 2003, Abdulwahab heard about the Diversity Visa lottery program, which randomly rewards green cards to people from countries with historically low immigration rates to the United States. That would mean permanent residency. He applied, but knew it was a long shot.

Out of 845,474 entries received from Ethiopia in 2015, only 4,988 were selected to move forward in the application process, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Even fewer end up successfully completing the rigorous process and making it to the U.S.

A year later, Abdulwahab got word that he had been selected to apply for a visa. He would be the first person in his family to come to the United States. For me, Abdulwahab said, that was like winning a million-dollar lottery.

Coming to America

Abdulwahab was 21 when he arrived in the U.S. in 2005 with only a pair of shoes, a change of clothes, and a bowl of his oldest sisters doro wat, a spicy chicken stew, and injera, Ethiopian flatbread.

While he wanted to go to college right away, his family needed his financial support. To make enough money to help support them and himself, Abdulwahab often worked 90 hours a week at two jobs, sometimes three. While working at McDonalds, he honed his English-speaking skills. While cleaning doctor and patient rooms at Gillette, he dreamed of some day working with those doctors and patients.

Twelve years after arriving in the U.S., Abdulwahab had saved enough money to attend Normandale Community College in Bloomington. He earned his two-year nursing degree and was hired to work in Gillettes Adult Inpatient Unit. He is on track to earn his bachelors degree in nursing in 2019.

Choosing a career in the health care field was a no-brainer for Abdulwahab. As a child, he often took care of his younger sister, who has Down syndrome.

In my culture, the older takes care of the younger, he said. I knew at age 10 or 11 the feeling of taking care of someone who needs extra help it just made me feel good.

Abdulwahabs colleagues at Gillette believe his upbringing and time spent caring for his sister laid a strong foundation of empathy, patience and hospitality that makes him a great nurse.

He has a sense of humbleness and purposefulness and compassionate intention for the well-being of everyone, Sinkfield-Morey said. That comes from him being raised by a family that was committed to each other, their village, their country, and to global harmony.

Abdulwahab continues to support his family in Ethiopia and hopes to one day start a clinic in his village, so that the people there dont have to travel so far for health care. Hed also like to work with Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian organization.

But Abdulwahab said he now feels like hes home.

I want to live a better life here, he said. I want to have a family and theres no way I can provide them the same opportunities like theyd have in the U.S.

I want people to see that, if I can do this, they can, too.

Aimee Blanchette 612-673-1715

Twitter: @aimeeblanchette

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