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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 4: Dreamchild

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 14, 2003

The envelope arrived on a Tuesday, a sunny and hot June 4, 2000, just before 1 p.m. All the Osmans remember it: The day before, Fahima and her mother had gone to the end of their street in Markham, Ont., to the brown super-mailboxes, shoving the key into 10A slot with their hearts pounding, only to find it empty. They knew the mailman delivered just after noon. They knew McMaster University had sent their answer off on Friday. Fahima hadn't slept all night; she had borrowed a cellphone to call the long list of family waiting to hear. On Tuesday, her mom, Zahra, who considers herself "a lucky woman," insisted on being the one to open the mailbox and reach inside. It was a package so deliciously fat and bulging, they didn't even have to open it. There was no mistaking what it said. Screaming, Fahima tackled her mother in a hug and kissed her. Zahra started crying. Her daughter was going to medical school.

"I used to wonder how people cried with joy," Fahima, now 25, recalls. "That day I found out."

The next big date is May 14, 2004, when Fahima Osman will have earned the right to put two long-dreamed-of letters before her name. And in that moment, the Somali refugee - whose parents had no formal schooling, whose father nearly drowned trying to flee a life of poverty, and whose high-school guidance counsellor once warned her not to aim so high - will become an original: the first Canadian-trained medical doctor in the country's largest African community.

To reckon with how far Fahima has come, you have to look back more than 50 years, to an enterprising 10-year-old named Adam Osman, born to a long line of nomads in the desert. He spent his early years wandering in the dust with the sheep and camels, trading for water or food and living under makeshift canopies of branches and cloth. Years later, when his children refused to finish their suppers, he would tell them about getting rationed his one cup of milk every second day.

Adam's mother died when he was little, and his father remarried. As the second-oldest boy among 12 children, he was sent to make his way in the northern city of Hargeysa, working for a local merchant and farmer. At 15, he learned to drive a taxi and he saved enough money to bring two brothers into the city, and send the youngest to school.

But he had ambition and he was clever, and with a bit more money, he managed to buy a one-way ticket to Yemen, where he paid 500 Yemen shillings - a fortune - to join 100 other stowaways on an unstable fishing boat bound for the United Arab Emirates. Finally, approaching land after days of motoring, the boat began to sink. Adam Osman could not swim. But while people churned helplessly in the water around him, he was pulled to safety by one of the other passengers and dropped on the beach.

His luck held in Abu Dhabi: He landed a job with a Canadian oil company, and worked himself up to a public-relations position that saw him organizing visas and ferrying around staff members. He paid for more siblings to go to school.

At 38, well past the age Somali men typically marry, he decided he was settled enough and sent home to his brothers and father to look for a wife. The name they produced was Zahra Ali, the 17-year-old daughter of the now-deceased merchant who had given him his first break.

Zahra was nervous about marrying someone so old, but she knew the way of these things. "I didn't have a choice," she says now. "I respected my family." She was married in white in Abu Dhabi. Two years later, in April, 1978, their first daughter, Fahima, was born.

By the late 1980s, the Canadian oil company had come up dry. Adam was given six months' notice, and with no job, he was not allowed to stay in the UAE. But the couple could not go home. They had six young children, and the political situation in Somalia was deteriorating, heading toward civil war. Zahra's family fell on the wrong side: "If we had gone back, they would have killed me," she explains, wiping a finger across her throat.

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