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Escaping war, Somali refugee finally finds a home in Syracuse, earning a medical degree from Upstate

All these years later, Shukri Mohamed still remembers the nurses who saved her life.

She was 10 years old and carrying her baby brother away from war in Somalia when she was shot in the back. Two Italian nurses stationed there found her and nursed her back to health.

Now, the baby she cradled in her arms, then raised in a refugee camp in Kenya, and brought to the United States as an illiterate pre-teen, is set to graduate from medical school at Upstate Medical University Sunday with two degrees, an MD and a master of public health degree.

Any time Zacharia Mohamed wanted to quit, to forgo his education and get a job to support his family, Shukri, the only mother Zacharia Mohamed has ever known, would remind him of those nurses.

She would remind him too of the other refugees in the camp in Kenya who had so little but shared it anyway with the two orphans. And of the high school teachers who tutored him late into the night. And of every friend and family member who helped them through their many hardships.

For all of those people, but especially for his mom Shukri, Zacharia Mohamed willed himself to succeed.

“My mom has always emphasized that this is my way of helping people and that I have to keep going because otherwise, I will never be in a position to help people the way we’ve been helped,” Zacharia Mohamed said. “Even today when I talk to her about anything in health care, she always reminds me of those nurses that rescued us. We wouldn’t have survived. She wouldn’t have survived. I wouldn’t have survived.  When I would say I want to get a job, she would say this is not what you are meant for. You need to think beyond yourself and our situation.” 

Zacharia Mohamed was a baby when he and Shukri were fleeing the war in Somalia and after she recovered from being shot, they made their way to a refugee camp in Kenya. After about 10 years, they came to the United States, first briefly to Arizona, then to Utica and then to Syracuse. In that time, Shukri married and had two sons, who Zacharia refers to as his brothers.

Zacharia Mohamed, who doesn’t know the exact year he was born, was about 11 when he arrived in the United States, going to school for the first time and having to speak a language he didn’t understand.

It was extremely isolating, he said, as he would have to sit and learn letters and sounds at a computer while his classmates did middle-school work.

But he stuck with it, learned to read, and went on to Nottingham High School. Two things happened while he was in high school that would define the rest of his life to date. There, he connected with teachers who believed in him, who would not let him quit, who stayed until almost midnight to work with him, and who still keep in touch with him today. But, his sister, already scarred by war and life as a refugee, suffered a traumatic brain injury that caused her to go blind and require around-the-clock care. Her husband left, and Zacharia Mohamed had to care for her and handle things like insurance and scheduling appointments and procedures all while trying to survive high school.

Zacharia Mohamed credits those teachers for getting him through high school and still keeps in touch with some of them today.

He attended Le Moyne College, where he credits a program called CSTEP for helping him succeed. CSTEP stands for Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, a state program aimed at helping historically underrepresented students succeed in careers in the scientific, technical, and health-related fields. He graduated from Le Moyne College in 2016.

All the while, his sister’s words, and his own memories of the medics helping long lines of sick people at the refugee camp, fueled his desire to continue.

“She has been saying I will be a doctor ever since I was a kid,” he said.

He has continued to juggle caring for Shukri and his brothers while going to school, and even now wrestles with his choices.

“There were times things got really difficult for me and times I felt a lot of guilt,” he said. “That I just should have been the one to care for her. I was there for her I did a lot, but did I do enough for her?”

After graduating from Le Moyne, Zacharia Mohamed received a conditional acceptance to Upstate and attended a post-baccalaureate program at the University of Buffalo for one year before he started medical school in 2017. Complications to his sister’s care during Covid, when home health aides were not available, made his schooling that much more challenging.

While at Upstate, he continued to get support from CSTEP. He won a Diversity in Medicine scholarship from the Associated Medical Schools of New York (AMSNY), one of only 10 students statewide to earn the award. He also became a U.S. citizen. Now in addition to graduating from medical school, he will receive an honorary degree from Le Moyne May 20.

His goal is to work with underserved populations, including refugee communities, and he will do his residency at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J.

When he crosses the stage at the SRC Arena Sunday, he will undoubtedly remember his sister’s hurried steps to save him as an infant, his own tenuous steps in his journey from refugee to MD, and the mother who would never let him stop walking toward a better future.

“I feel very blessed,” he said. “I feel very grateful.”

Caption: Zacharia Mohamed, outside Weiskotten Hall on the Upstate Medical University campus.