Veterinarians rally for uprooted colleague

Somali practitioner-turned-refugee needs better prosthetic leg

November 12, 2015 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo courtesy of Dr. Mohamed Ali Nur
Far from their native Somalia, Dr. Mohamed Ali Nur and family now live in the northern Swiss city of Basel. Front row from left: Ishwaaq, 12 (in orange scarf); Shadiyo, 10; Miriam Jama Siyad (wife); Shirwac, 14. Back row from left: Libaan, 16, Jabril, 18; Mohamed Ali Nur.
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The story of a veterinarian who narrowly survived civil unrest in Somalia and now wears a 33-pound crude artificial leg moved Dr. Cathy Wilkie so deeply that she immediately offered help.

“Wow,” Wilkie wrote on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. “I would contribute to get him a prosthesis that doesn’t weigh as much as a spaniel.”

Wilkie’s idea caught on. Within days, more than a dozen fellow veterinarians who read about Dr. Mohamed Ali Nur, a 60-year-old Somali refugee living with his wife and five children in Switzerland and eking out a humble living as a street vendor, requested a way to assist him.

In response, the VIN Foundation, a nonprofit established in 2005 by members of VIN, set up the Dr. Nur Fund to collect donations to help him obtain a better prosthetic leg. The fund received $1,875 in its first five days, according to Jordan benShea, the foundation's executive director.

“It’s clearly something the community wants,” benShea said. “This is fantastic across-the-board. I think it’s great to help a colleague, and it aligns with our mission.”

The story of the Somali veterinarian, who uses the nickname Dr. Man, originally was published by the German-language magazine Surprise, a Swiss street publication sold by homeless and indigent people. Man described working for a Swiss non-governmental organization (Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Suisse) in Somalia when the country broke out in civil war. The terrorist group al-Shabaab, apparently believing him to be a spy for the United States, brutally assaulted Man while he was home alone.

He wrote: "They attacked with grenades. I lost my right leg and my whole stomach was hanging out of my body. I pretended to be dead. They thought I’d died in the attack, and they fled."

Following a long recovery in the hospital, Man resettled as a political asylee in Switzerland in 2012. His wife and five of their six children later joined him. (Their eldest, a son, remains in Somalia because as an adult, he was ineligible to accompany the family.) The family of seven lives in a 3½-room apartment in Basel.

The VIN News Service contacted Surprise and Man to request permission to reprint his story. The resulting article combined parts of the original article with details about his veterinary background and present plight.

(The veterinarian’s name in Somalia was Dr. Mohamed Ali Nur. Due to differences in naming conventions in Somalia and Western countries, his Swiss name is Ali Nur Mohamed.)

Wilkie, owner of clinics in Vancouver and West Vancouver in British Columbia, said she was struck by the sudden change in his life.

Donations to be matched

“Here's a veterinarian going about his business looking after animals who are truly in need, training farmers to care for their stock, and looking after his family, just being an ordinary guy,” she mused in an interview by email. “Then, through no fault of his own and with great violence, his life is profoundly changed.

“One moment, he's a veterinarian helping animals and people, and the next, he's a veterinarian with critical injuries and without a leg. Then he's a veterinarian recovering from his injuries without a place to live or work, who can't make a living in the profession he's worked at for many years. Then he's a veterinarian unable to work who isn't even in his home country. His friends, most of his family, his professional, industrial, and academic connections are all somewhere else.”

Wilkie continued: “I thought about how I would handle such a complete uprooting of everything I know and how emotionally devastating it would be. He has survived, though, and with grace. I thought about how resilient he must be. Then I thought about how we could help him, but the problem is immense (how do you give someone back an entire life?) and it seems so far away, physically.”

Her thoughts settled on his prosthesis. “That's something that we might change even from thousands of miles away,” Wilkie said. “We could give him some degree of physical relief, and maybe knowing that people from all over the world are thinking about him and wishing him well might give him some emotional relief, as well.”

She added: “I hope that we can get him a prosthesis that is light, that will allow him to walk and get around with much more ease, and that he can feel good about when he sees it and puts it on. I hope that it will be associated with good thoughts and memories to replace some of the bad ones.”

Man reported that a more modern prosthetic leg costs about $21,500, a sum his government health insurance declined to pay. Whether the price includes the cost of fitting and follow-up medical visits is unclear. The VIN Foundation is awaiting details on the full expense, process and timeline from Man’s physician.

Meanwhile, a veterinarian in northern Pennsylvania, Dr. Ronnie Schenkein, reached out to Man by email to send words of encouragement and ask if he and his family needed warm clothes for the approaching winter. Schenkein ended up sending seven parcels within three weeks at an estimated cost of $1,000.

“You know,” Schenkein said with a modest shrug in her voice, “it made them very happy. I can’t imagine how it would feel to have left everything behind, including part of your family, and being physically traumatized. ...

“I just figured, something good had to happen. I can’t totally fix their life but if it gives them an emotional boost to know they’re not alone and somebody cares, I think that’s a really good place to start.”

Reaching out to Man and his family also gave Schenkein a lift when she needed it. Until this spring, Schenkein ran her own practice. She retired, reluctantly, due to health problems. “I really missed it,” she said. “This thing really perked me up. This was fun. You have a tendency when you’re tired to feel useless. I don’t feel useless!”

Events in her family history also compelled Schenkein to help. Her grandfather’s brothers and sisters and their families, she learned recently, died in a Nazi gas chamber. Coming to grips with that fact, then reading about the monstrous attack on Man “rang all sorts of bells in my psyche,” Schenkein said.

Her response was to try to bring about a bit of redemption in Man’s world. Beyond corresponding with him and sending care packages, she’s donated to the Dr. Nur Fund and solicited donations from friends in person and on Facebook. She hopes others will do the same.

“People can be so hideous, and they can be so wonderful,” Schenkein said. “I guess having experienced some of the worst, I want him to experience some of the best.”

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