Getting to know Dr. Nur

A colleague reaches for understanding across borders, cultures

July 18, 2016 (published)
By Ronnie Schenkein

Photo by Curt Weinhold
Dr. Ronnie Schenkein and Meko, a nanday conure.

Editor's note: In articles previously published by the VIN News Service, Dr. Nur was called Dr. Man, a nickname based upon his Somali name Mohamed Ali Nur. In Switzerland, his name is recorded as Ali Nur Mohamed.

In the past year, I learned that most, and possibly all, of my grandfather’s 12 brothers and sisters were killed by the Nazis. My sense of the terror my relatives endured was evoked by an account I read of a veterinarian named Dr. Mohamed Ali Nur.

Nur was working for Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Suisse in his native land of Somalia when he was attacked by al-Shabaab. He tells us this terrorist group had previously targeted and killed other veterinarians doing similar work. By pretending to be dead, Nur escaped with his life but suffered severe injuries including the loss of a leg. After months in a hospital, he was granted asylum in Switzerland along with his wife and five of their six children. The eldest, Farhan, then age 18, was considered an adult by the Swiss government and had to stay behind in a war-torn zone, a source of much anxiety for all of them. Nur and his wife sell newspapers in the street in Basel, a difficult living. But they are delighted that their two daughters and three of their four sons are enrolled in school.

From the time I first learned about the plight of Nur in an article published by the VIN News Service on Oct. 5, I knew I wanted to help. When I read his words “The most important thing is to be friendly and not to wear a grumpy expression” and “It’s very important to us to be properly integrated because life in Switzerland is our future,” I felt that his positive attitude showed him to be a good person worthy of our assistance.

Staff at the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession, confirmed Nur’s story. In response to requests from VIN members, the VIN Foundation then established a Dr. Nur Fund to accept tax-deductible contributions toward the purchase of a better prosthetic limb, to facilitate his search for work that is more appropriate to his intelligence and training.

The flurry of initial donations is past, and I don’t want him to be forgotten. Each winter, Nur has been negotiating unfamiliar snow and ice on a crude artificial leg that hurts, and which causes him to fall frequently. It would be great if we could get him a better leg before winter returns.

His story moved me on a number of levels. One is that I have had close relationships with several men who have been exposed to war and serious injuries, and my mother had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). I know what this level of duress can do to a person’s spirit; it can make or break you, and I perceived that Nur is a person of exceptional spiritual strength.

Also, I have been coming to terms with uncovering the fate of my grandfather’s missing brothers and sisters and their families. My grandfather was an electrical engineer who came to the United States from Estonia in 1910, married my grandmother and later became a U.S. citizen. He was the only survivor of 13 siblings. I grew up seeing photographs of them with their children, dogs and beautiful draft horses, feeling that these were faces of people I would love if I knew them, with whom I might have experienced the same warmth as I have with the great-uncles, aunts and second cousins I know in this country.

I was told that because of World War II and the Iron Curtain, my grandfather died never knowing what happened to them but suspecting the worst. Through the Internet, I have since confirmed that most, if not all, of them were killed by the Nazis. I could imagine Nur and his family suffering a similarly terrifying experience, needing to leave their homes, work, family and friends, hoping to find safety.

In addition, I recently had been forced to retire sooner than I would have liked because of problems caused by Lyme disease. About the time I learned about Nur, I was having a hard time dealing with the loss of my work in veterinary medicine, which had been the center of my life for 40 years. The project to help the Nur family gave me a new sense of purpose and a meaningful connection.

What would it be like to flee for your life, lose everything you had and live in another country where you didn’t speak the language and couldn’t practice your profession? Pondering what they must have lost, and what difficulties they must face on a daily basis in adapting to a foreign culture and three new languages (Swiss people speak German, French and English), moved me to reach out. Fortunately, Nur speaks English. I have been corresponding with the Nur family by email and snail mail since October. A friend and I have sent them 14 packages of clothing.

The VIN Foundation has raised $18,570 toward its goal of $25,000 to provide Dr. Mohamed Ali Nur with a better prosthetic leg. For more information and to contribute online, visit the Dr. Nur Fund webpage.

Donations also may be mailed to:

VIN Foundation
413 F Street
Davis, CA 95616

I confess to having known next to nothing about Somalia. In fact, I had to look at a map to find it. A Google search revealed a tragic history of war, drought and instability. The veterinary college in Mogadishu, from which Nur graduated in 1982, was destroyed in the early 1990s and did not reopen until 2014.

I learned that 80 percent of Somalis earn their livelihood through livestock, so veterinary services are important. Somalia has the highest population of camels in the world. Nur tells me the common animal diseases in the country are endoparasites (especially during the dry season and drought) and ectoparasites that are vectors of diseases such as trypanosomiasis, East Coast fever, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, Nairobi sheep disease, heartwater and Rift Valley fever. Common infectious diseases include contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, brucellosis, anthrax, hemorrhagic septicemia, sheep, goat and camel poxes and toxoplasmosis in camels.

As we’ve corresponded, I have become more and more impressed with Nur’s character and intelligence. In explaining to him why I have taken such an interest, I mentioned that my grandfather lost his 12 brothers and sisters and their families in the Holocaust and I was fortunate to descend from the one man who moved to America. I expressed some concern in telling him that I am Jewish, knowing the attitude toward Jews among some of Muslim faith. He replied, “We condemn any kind of hate, discrimination and violence, and our hope is life in the peace over the world.”

About Islamic extremists he said earlier this year: “We are very sad what happened in Paris and Brussels or anywhere in the world. We don’t like any kind violence. These terrorist are not true Muslim because they destroy the whole Qu’uran dignity. They kill every person who was not believe in their bad principles.”

And: “My prayer also is for the people of the world to unite for peace and they will take the responsibility to keep this planet peaceful without violence and killing innocent and weak peoples.”

I have begun to be acquainted with Nur’s children, as well. The ones in Switzerland are studying in German, with English and French as minor subjects. I have tried to learn Somali, but this is not easy, as it is not a bit like the languages I know, so I am doubly impressed with their progress. Shirwac, a 15-year-old son, posted on Facebook, “Words is hidden in the heart, but we cannot understand the language the person understands.”

Because their education was disrupted by war in Somalia, all but the eldest of the children in Switzerland are in primary school; Jabril, age 18, is in middle school. I am now Facebook friends with Shirwac, Liiban, 16, and the son in Somalia, Farhan, who is now 20. Shirwac wants to be a veterinarian like his father. I invited him to come to the United States and observe, but getting a visa may be difficult until the family members are eligible to become Swiss citizens in four years.

I asked Shirwac what animals he had in Somalia. He answered, “camel, cattle, goat, but they are all dead now.”

One way the children and I have connected is through music, one of my passions. Liiban sings beautifully. He’s in a group called Liilove, which I’ve listened to on YouTube. Here’s an audio clip of just him singing.

Your browser does not support the audio element.

We have been exchanging clips of music we like. I sent Yo-Yo Ma, Steve Winwood’s "Higher Love," some Whitney Houston, Renaissance recorder music (my hobby), Prince with Larry Graham playing “I Want to Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself Again,” and "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly." Liiban sent me Justin Bieber, Rashka Boy and Daawo Hees. I also looked up one of the family’s favorite Somali musicians, Dhaanto.

Farhan, the eldest boy, is stranded in Somalia without access to the internet or education. A computer-savvy friend and I put together and sent a laptop to Switzerland onto which was downloaded free educational materials from the Khan Academy and educational DVDs. A friend of Nur’s wife hand-delivered it to him in Somalia, as postal service is not dependable.

To the children in Switzerland, I’ve sent postcards of wildlife and scenery from Pennsylvania. Here are examples of the letters they sent in reply:

From Shadiyo, a daughter, age 11:

Dear Ronnie Is Waran (Somali for “how are you”) I was received your post card with good photo also I am very happy to share with you everything. I have a lot of friends in my school. I am learning German, English and France language. The name of my school is Isaak Iselin School and I am class 5 or Standard 5. Waad mahadsantahay (Thank you very much).

VIN News Service file photo 2015
Dr. Mohamed Ali Nur and family. Front row from left: Ishwaaq (in orange scarf), Shadiyo, wife Miriam Jama Siyad, Shirwac. Back row from left: Libaan, Jabril, Dr. Nur.

From Ishwaaq, a daughter, age 13:

Gacaliso waa kusalaam (Greetings, dear) Dr. Ronnie, I was read you postal card. It was very wonderful when I see the intelligent animal. (The postcard depicted a raccoon). Thank you for your sharing letters and I am happy to see you photo the bird on your body. I am class and learning English, German and France, waad mahsantahay, best wishes by Ishwaq Also jus jus (German for bye-bye) by by by Thank you, Dr. Ronnie

From Jabril, a son, age 18:

Dear Ronnie, Iska waran. I was received your post card with good photo, also I am very happy to share with you. I thank to you for mailed postal card animal picture. My home land we have gross (German for large) animals like the one was printed your postcard (I think it was a deer). Some are very danger like black Rhino and Elephant and some are calm like Zebra. Thank you. Best wishes by Jabril.

In my travels, I have found that it means a lot to people in other countries if you make at least a feeble attempt to speak their language. With the aid of lessons on YouTube supplemented by Google Translate, I sent Nur a few words in Somali. I asked if it was OK. He replied: “It was wonderful, when I saw Somali language written, all words are right.”

Recently, I spoke to the local Rotary Club about VIN and the Dr. Nur Fund in the hopes of attracting contributions. I also wanted to communicate with local business people about a bigger picture. A lot of people wonder, who are these refugees? Can we trust them? Why do they leave their homes?

The story of Mohamed Ali Nur is only one of millions of tragic stories. We may feel helpless to aid everyone in need, but we can make a big difference to individual lives. The effects can radiate to their acquaintances and to future generations, just as my grandfather, by surviving, made my life and livelihood possible. How many of us may owe our lives to kindness that was extended to someone in our own families years ago?

I like to think of the fundraising project as “hands across the water.” Nur, his wife, their children and all their fellow refugees in Switzerland get a chance to see that people in the United States care. And we get a chance, possibly, to influence the course of lives for generations to come.

About the author: Ronnie Schenkein received her DVM degree from Cornell in 1980 and opened Coudersport Animal Health Center in north-central Pennsylvania in 1989. She retired in 2015 for health reasons. “I have been forced to reinvent myself and focus on the intellectual and spiritual aspects of life and less on the physical,” she says. “I have learned so much from trying to understand other species, and have become convinced that the highest good is trying to see the world through the eyes of another." Ronnie plans a trip to Basel, Switzerland, to visit Nur and family in September.

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