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How My Refugee Childhood Made Me Determined to Defeat Disease

Growing up in a refugee camp, Sayah Bogor saw that disease can be as deadly as war. It set her on a path of scientific study, medical research and of one day, she hopes, becoming a doctor. Now a 24-year-old refugee in the U.S., she describes her journey into medicine.

Written by Sayah Bogor Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Displaced women carry firewood in a camp on the outskirts of Baidoa, Somalia, March 2017. AFP/TONY KARUMBA

I knew from a very young age that I wanted to understand what made people sick and use that understanding to save them. Growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya, I noticed how more people passed away from sickness than any of the violence I had witnessed fleeing war.

I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, where my earliest memories are filled with sunshine, family and lots of love.

Then, when I was five years old, my family was split apart. Violence was growing in Somalia, so my father and two older brothers went to America, while the rest of us planned to follow shortly after. But fighting broke out before we could leave, and my mother, younger brother and I had to flee for Kenya. I spent many nights walking and many days hiding until we reached a refugee camp in Nairobi.

When I look back at my childhood I categorize all of my memories into two parts: before America and after. I have done this in order to put all of my most painful memories into a box that is only opened when I need to reach back and remember.

Even though I was only five when I arrived in Kenya, I no longer considered myself a child. I was forced to grow up too soon by the atrocities I had seen and the trauma of running away from the only home I had ever known.

Like many others in the camp, my mother fell ill. She continued to be ill with various sicknesses for the majority of the time we were in Nairobi. I became the caregiver for both her and my younger brother.

My daily schedule over the next two years went like clockwork. I would wake up as early as I could and stand guard for my mother and younger brother. Refugee camps can be dangerous places for women alone with young children, so in order to protect us I kept close watch and if anyone came near I screamed and made as much noise as possible to keep them away from my family.

Those were the worst moments of my life, standing in the heat all day praying that this day would not be my last on Earth. The happiest moment in the camp was the day I heard from a worker that my father had been in contact with them, and we would all get to leave very soon.

My father had spent two years searching for us. He called all the camps in the area trying to find out where we had ended up, or if we had made it out of Somalia at all. By this time, Somalia was in chaos, and many people were fleeing to nearby countries, making it incredibly difficult to locate three people among the masses.

Once we received our visas and plane tickets my mother, younger brother and I flew for the first time and landed in New York City. We then moved to Arizona because I had developed asthma in the camp, and doctors said I should relocate to a warmer climate. I spent my first few years growing accustomed to American culture and trying to move on from my old life and begin a new one.

I was always a curious child. Anything that was put together I tried to take apart so I could learn how it worked. When I took my first in-depth biology class in high school, everything clicked. In order to understand what makes people sick I needed to understand how our bodies work. I poured myself into the sciences, completing a bachelor’s in science from Arizona State University and a master’s in public health in infectious diseases and vaccinology from University of California, Berkeley.

I wanted to understand how, in areas with poor sanitation and hygiene like refugee camps, infectious agents spread much more quickly, giving rise to rampant sickness and death. I was lucky enough to receive the Subir Choudhury Fellowship, which allowed me to study diarrheal diseases and multidrug resistant urinary tract infections in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Having seen firsthand as a child how these diseases kill, I want to understand how to better prevent these deaths. In this way, becoming a refugee has shaped the rest of my life.

My dream is to go to medical school. I know that many people say they want to be a surgeon or a pediatrician, but I know better than most that nothing in life is guaranteed. While I have asylum in the U.S. I do not yet have full citizenship, which makes applying to medical school difficult and financially risky.

If I do make it, the best day of my life will be the day I present my parents with my medical diploma and show them that all of their struggle wasn’t for nothing and that it is because of them I am alive and happy today.

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