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Rumbila's Story: Springfield Woman Works To Balance Career Goals, Family And Tradition

In early May, Smith College senior Rumbila Abdullahi relaxed on a couch in her living room off a quiet street in the Sixteen Acres neighborhood of Springfield, Massachusetts. She wore a baati — a traditional Somali dress — and a hijab.

Days earlier, she sat in a testing center for most of a day taking the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT.

In less than a week, she would give birth to her first child.

By the end of the month, she’d be a Smith College graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. 

But now, Abdullahi’s mind was on the past, as she described the disorientation she felt the first time she sat in class as a college freshman.

“Going from high school in Springfield to Smith College in Northampton was completely different,” she said. “All the students at Smith were dedicated, and they were not misbehaving.”

Abdullahi gave a short laugh and adjusted her headscarf.

“The professor comes, and everybody's all ears, and asking questions,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Wow, OK. It's probably just because it's the beginning.’” 

She shook her head and opened her eyes wide in surprise. 

“But no. It was like that the whole time,” she said.

As part of an audio documentary project, Abdullahi carried an audio recorder for a few busy weeks — running errands with her mother, studying for the MCAT, preparing for a friend’s wedding, completing her classes at Smith College and giving birth. She captured an eventful and stressful time in her life, taking on a number of major transitions all at once.

‘We both know the condition we came from’

Abdullahi, 23, is Somali Bantu, an ethnic minority that suffered persecution from violent militias during the Somali civil war in the 1990s. Her parents and many other Somali Bantus were forced to flee their agricultural homeland, walking from Somalia to refugee camps in Kenya.

Abdullahi was born in the massive Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya and lived there until she was 7 years old. 

“When we left Kenya's refugee camp, before finding out that we were leaving, I did not know that the place we were at was temporary,” she said. “To me, it was just like, this is it. This is my life, you know, living my life as a kid.”

One day, Abdullahi and some of her siblings were told to catch a goat for a goodbye celebration.

“And the next day, we were in a vehicle,” she said. “And that was my first time going in a vehicle. And I didn't realize I was moving fast — when I was in the car. I remember being very amazed how fast the elephants were running, when they weren't even moving. But I was moving.”

Abdullahi’s first days in Springfield in 2005 were disorienting in numerous ways. 

“When we first came to the U.S., it was snowing,” she said, sighing. “Oh boy, what was that terrifying white stuff falling from the sky? And on top of that, I was surrounded by people that were not my color. And so I just remember being really scared, and just holding onto my mom's dress, refusing to move anywhere — just, like, holding on really tight, and refusing anyone who tries to take me away from my mom.”

But young Rumbila quickly became fluent in English. Among her siblings, she was the one who was most interested in school. 

Rumbila Abdullahi was a manager at a farmers market in the Brightwood neighborhood of Springfield, Massachusetts, when she was a senior at Smith College.
Credit Ben James / NEPM
Rumbila Abdullahi was a manager at a farmers market in the Brightwood neighborhood of Springfield, Massachusetts, when she was a senior at Smith College.
Abdullahi's ambition is to be a doctor for the Somali Bantu community. But even just to conceive of this career goal meant bucking traditional expectations.

“When I started to learn more English,” she said, “I automatically just took on the role of being a translator and filling out forms, even though I had older brothers that were going to middle school. So that role just fell onto me. And ever since, I've just been like, ‘Alright, got to get what needs to be done, done.’”

Abdullahi has been married to her husband, Ibrahim Abdi, since the summer after she graduated high school. They both spent their early years at the Kakuma refugee camp. Abdullahi’s older brothers remember playing with Abdi in the camp. Their families arrived in Springfield within months of one another.

“We both know the condition we came from,” Abdi said. “We both know where we grew up. We both know that coming to the U.S. was for a better opportunity.” 

The couple met when she was in middle school and he was in high school. At first, she did not take his advances seriously.

“In the beginning, I was really annoyed,” she said, while he sat beside her, grinning. “Because there was this boy just disturbing my, like, routine — and my, what I want to do, which is just stay in the library and read.”  

Abdi laughed.

“Because she goes to the library, now I have to go to the library, because that's where she's at,” he said. “And I don't go there to read. I go there for her.”   

“And he does not like reading at all. He hates reading,” Abdullahi said. “I don't even know, I mean, I guess what got me interested is his consistency of only being interested in me. And he was always following the religious path, and I liked that about him.” 

‘All the way to physician’

The summer after her junior year of high school, Abdullahi was doing an internship at Tufts Medical School. Up to that point, her plan had been to train as a physician’s assistant. Now she was surrounded by students of color, many of them immigrants, with the ambition to become the first doctors in their families.

“Them being the first, and having the confidence in pursuing that,” Abdullahi said. “I was like, ‘OK, why can't I be like that? I'm gonna go all the way, not halfway through physician assistant, but all the way to physician.’” 

During college, Abdullahi’s life intersected with the medical field in a number of ways. Not only did she study to become a doctor — she also worked as a patient care technician at Baystate Medical Center. And increasingly, she had to provide medical support and advice to her mother, who suffers from diabetes and congestive heart failure.

“Last year, my mom was admitted to the hospital,” Abdullahi said. “Her symptoms were acting up, and the cardiologist was like, ‘She needs to get a pacemaker. Without it, she’s probably not gonna last a year.’”

Attempting to explain the situation to her mom was difficult. 

“She was like, ‘No, no. They're trying to take my organs,’” Abdullahi said. “I was like, ‘Mom, no, that's not what it is.’ So I showed her a video of how the procedure’s done, and [said] that I would be there with her.” 

At the hospital, Abdullahi’s mother was so nervous that the doctors called Abdullahi in for support. She came in and stood by her mother, speaking in Maay Maay, their native language.

“There'll be a moment of silence when I don't talk, and she's like, ‘You there?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I'm here. Right behind you,’” she said. 

Witnessing the doctors in action, Abdullahi said, reinforced her determination to go to medical school. But first she had to get past the MCAT.

This spring, she packed every moment she could with studying. She listened to MCAT podcasts while she drove, and she took a seven-hour practice exam while her husband was at work.

During one of the practice exams, Abdullahi stifled a yawn while checking an answer.

“OK,” she said to herself, “prolonged ketoacidosis. So blood pH is low, and the goal will be to increase it.”

Her cat, August, brushed against the laptop.

“August, no. Go away,” she said.

Abdullahi and Abdi got the cat in 2017, right after they were married.

“I really wanted a cat, and my mom didn't approve of having pets when I lived under her roof,” Abdullahi said. “So as soon as I got married and moved out, I was like, ‘I want a cat.’”

Abdullahi reprimanded August gently as she attempted to focus on the practice test. Later, she explained some of what she was up against with the MCAT. 

“I'm the type of learner where it’s like, it will take me some time to learn something, but eventually, I will learn it and master it,” she said. “But the standardized test doesn't give you that wiggle room.”   

For the most part, Abdullahi said, she does not believe she’s suffered disadvantages at Smith due to having fewer financial resources than many of her peers. But being adequately prepared for the MCAT was an exception.

“The standardized test kind of gears towards people who have money to get a tutor or something,” she said. “I can't afford a tutor.”

Abdullahi briefly put her head in her hands.

“I have one more month to take my MCAT exam, and I'm freaking out. I'm so freaking out,” she said, and inhaled a deep breath. “But I'm just going to keep chugging along.”

Sitting beside her, her husband took his own deep breath.

“She's gonna do well, and she's gonna be a great doctor,” Abdi said.

An escape plan

A recurrent theme in Abdullahi’s life is her struggle with the traditional expectations of being a Somali Bantu wife. Tradition pulls her, and she has a strong commitment to her family and community.

But she also has a powerful drive to shed many of the cultural expectations of her parents’ generation.

“I personally do not like to follow the tradition,” she said. “I feel like it's overwhelming, especially the fact that I'm also working and in school. And if I was expected to do the extra things that I have to do as a traditional Somali Bantu wife, I would have been very frustrated.” 

Rumbila Abdullahi celebrating with her husband, Ibrahim Abdi, shortly after her graduation from Smith College. Abdullahi arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, with her family in 2005 as a 7-year-old refugee from Kenya.
Credit Courtesy / Rumbila Abdullahi
Rumbila Abdullahi
Rumbila Abdullahi celebrating with her husband, Ibrahim Abdi, shortly after her graduation from Smith College. Abdullahi arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, with her family in 2005 as a 7-year-old refugee from Kenya.

Abdi works as a welder for an electronics company in Connecticut. The couple bought their home in Sixteen Acres about a year ago. A large photo from their wedding is framed above the couch in the living room. 

I asked them if other Somali Bantus live in their neighborhood. They laughed, and said unlike many people in their community who live in multi-family homes, they’d chosen a single-family home.

“We love our family,” Abdi said, “but we just want our —”

“Our own space,” Abdullahi said.

Whether it is at college, with her mom, or in relation to her extended community, Abdullahi is constantly balancing a desire to invest herself and stay connected, with a powerful drive to break away, make her own rules and set her own expectations.

Nowhere is this tension more clear than in Abdullahi’s plan to become a physician.

Her ambition is to be a doctor for the Somali Bantu community. But even just to conceive of this career goal meant bucking traditional Somali Bantu expectations and, at times, defying her parents’ wishes. 

There were similar tensions during the years Abdullahi spent at Smith College. 

“I was going to Smith on a scholarship,” she said. “I would never have been able to afford all that money for Smith.”

The scholarship allowed Abdullahi to pursue her academic studies with greater intensity and determination than she’d been able to before. But at the same time, many of her experiences at Smith reinforced the ways she stood out as an immigrant and Muslim student of color at an elite undergraduate college.

“Smith is predominantly white,” she said. “So like, sometimes I'll be the only Black student in my class. And that was kind of different, because my Springfield high school was very diverse.”

Abdullahi was on a pre-med track and very science-focused, but she loved her sophomore sociology class. The content of the course was eye-opening, she said, even though class discussions could get pretty awkward.

She recalled one discussion about the history of redlining and Black homeownership. At the time, Abdullahi and her husband had not yet bought a house. They were renting an apartment in Springfield. She was from the exact demographic being discussed by her classmates. 

“I was the only one [in the class] that was from, you know — I was from Springfield, and I'm Black,” she said.

But the way her peers talked about the issue — Abdullahi described it as “dry” — made her feel disconnected from her own experience.

“I wasn't comfortable sharing my thoughts,” she said.

Abdullahi attended Smith during a tumultuous period for the college, with several high-profile controversies over the last few years. She was friends with Oumou Kanoute, a Black student who alleged she was racially targeted by Smith College staff while eating her lunch. The story got national attention and brought on a wave of student protests. 

“I've heard negative things have happened to Black students at Smith,” Abdullahi said. “Obviously, like, it's all over the media.”

Abdullahi said she herself hadn’t had any similarly negative experiences at Smith. 

“A lot of the things that happen — it’s because the students are there all day, all night. They live there,” she said. “And I don't live there, so I could escape anytime I wanted.”

Abdullahi joined the track team, made friends, and performed well as a student at Smith. But she set up the conditions to assure that, when she needed to, she could escape the constraints and institutional problems of an elite academic institution. 

These tensions, and the desire to be able to escape — or at least go for a run — could even show up in the clothes Abdullahi chose to wear.

“When I was going to school on campus,” Abdullahi said, “I would walk in [wearing] a baati and my running shoes.”

She laughed loudly.

“Oh my gosh, my friends still bug me about that,” she said. “Not my American friends. My Somali Bantu friends. They're like, ‘Every time I see you, you're always wearing a baati with running shoes.’”

But Abdullahi said the slippers or “cute flats” her friends wore with their baatis would never do for her own purposes.

“I'm ready to run whenever. I just lift my baati and I'm good to go,” she said.

For years, Abdullahi avoided letting her mom see her wearing any non-traditional clothes. She’d carry an extra baati in her bag so when she needed to, she could change out of jeans and a sweatshirt at a moment’s notice.

Now, as Abdullahi becomes a mother herself, she expresses a sense of comfort with her clothing decisions. Sometimes that means dressing in ways her mom might disapprove of. But more and more lately, that sense of comfort also includes dressing exactly like her mom.

“I like to joke when I dress like this, I look like somebody's mother,” she said. “Because that's how our moms dress all the time. They love the matching scarf with the baati.”

‘How was he squished in there?’

On Friday, April 30, Abdullahi walked into a testing center in Springfield. During the week leading up to that day, she was, in her words, “freaking out.”

“So the week of my MCAT exam,” she said, “I emailed all my professors. I was like, ‘I'm taking this exam, and I am very overwhelmed. And I would like it if I could just step out of class for this week.’”   

Her professors agreed. 

Although Abdullahi had taken numerous practice tests by this point, parts of the MCAT felt unfamiliar to her. 

“I was a little bit alarmed,” she said. “But then I just had to calm myself down, like, ‘It’s OK, just do it.’”

After the test, she packed away her practice materials.

“Anything MCAT related, I hid it away. I deleted that podcast I was listening to,” she said.

She shook her head, reflecting on the experience.

“Wow. Can't believe I did it. I sat for seven hours — while pregnant — taking an exam. I don't even want to think about it,” she said.

And a couple weeks later, her husband drove her to the obstetrics department at Baystate Medical Center, where — in an extraordinary twist for this aspiring doctor — Abdullahi delivered her baby among her hospital co-workers.

Rumbila Abdullahi, Ibrahim Abdi and their newborn son, Nabeel. Custom in Somali Bantu culture dictates that a newborn's face not be fully photographed until the child is at least six months old.
Credit Ben James / NEPM
Rumbila Abdullahi, Ibrahim Abdi and their newborn son, Nabeel. Custom in Somali Bantu culture dictates that a newborn's face not be fully photographed until the child is at least six months old.

“Everybody I work with was there,” Abdullahi said about a week after the birth. “So it was just very funny. I was a patient. And the nurses [would] just make a joke. They're like, ‘Oh, now you’ll see why all those women were yelling.’”

She laughed. 

“That was the most craziest experience of my life. Like labor and just delivering a baby, you know, first time for me,” she said.

Abdullahi’s mother was receiving dialysis treatment the day her daughter went into labor. But that didn’t stop her from weighing in on the experience.

“My mom was really strict about not using epidural,” Abdullahi said. “Yeah, that’s one thing we agreed on: no epidural. And she was blowing up on my mother-in-law's phone, my husband's phone, to make sure I did not take epidural.”

Ultimately, Abdullahi used a non-medical intervention to deal with the pain. 

“I was holding my husband's hand,” she said, laughing. “But what I didn't realize is my nails were long, and I was digging into his hands. Oh my god. He told me later on he was trying to escape from my grip. But I wouldn't let him. I’m like, ‘Give me your hand.’ Oh my God. Poor dude.”  

Not long after the birth, Abdullahi watched her son receive his first bath, crying and squalling all the while. She was incredulous.

“When Nabeel first came out, I was shocked,” she said. “I was like, ‘What? He was that long?’ I'm like, ‘How was he squished in there?’”    

‘Mommy’s about to graduate’

A couple weeks after Nabeel’s birth, Abdullahi drove alone from Springfield to Northampton for her college graduation. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only graduating students were allowed at the event.

At home, her husband watched the graduation on Facebook. He had their cat, August, at his side, and Nabeel in the crib beside him. As the graduates took the stage one by one, Abdi spoke to his son. 

“Ah, Nabeel, Mommy’s about to graduate,” he said.

Then he cheered as his wife’s name was called.

“Nabeel!” he shouted. “Mommy graduated! Are you gonna wake up? Four years of hard work!”

Two days later, Abdullahi received the email she’d been anticipating and dreading. Her MCAT score had arrived.

She put off opening the email for most of the day, a gut feeling telling her she hadn’t scored as highly as she wanted. Finally, she sat down at her laptop, Abdi at her side, and Nabeel in her arms.

“I don’t want to look at it,” she said.

“You want me to look at it first, and then tell you?” Abdi asked. 

“Mmm, I think I’ll just go hardcore and look,” Abdullahi said. “OK, review scores.”

When she saw the score, Abdullah clicked her tongue and said, “Oh, yeah, I’m not surprised.”

Nabeel cooed and gurgled, making sleep sounds in her lap.

“You OK, Nabeel?” she said.

She looked back up at the laptop.

“I’m not really thrilled about this score,” she said.

She was freshly graduated. She held her new baby in her arms. And now she’d received news that her plans for med school would be delayed by at least a year. It would be hard to overstate how much accomplishment, joy and disappointment Abdullahi had packed into this small stretch of time.

Within a week, Abdullahi’s disappointment with her MCAT score had softened a bit, and she was in a more reflective mood.  

“Before the month of April came around, I knew all the things that were coming up, but I did not realize how exhausting it was gonna be until everything was literally back to back,” she said. “The only thing that didn't work out was my MCAT score. But that's OK, because now I have a plan. I will not be giving up.”

Abdullahi was still determined, she said, to crush the MCAT.

“Now, with like, no school in the way, nothing else to think about besides the MCAT —” She paused and rethought her previous statement. “And obviously Nabeel, but we'll figure it out.”

She laughed and told the story of something her sister Halima had said right after Smith graduation.

“My sister, she's like, ‘Wow, Nabeel just took the MCAT. He just graduated. I can't get to his level.’”

Abdullahi paused, and smiled.

“That is so true, Nabeel literally just took the MCAT, and he wasn't even born,” she said. “He was listening. All those classes. I'm like, ‘Wow, Nabeel. I wasn’t even like that when I was in the womb.’”

This story was reported as an audio documentary project for New England Public Media.

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