Alaska Life

A refugee uses her years in Alaska to help new arrivals

Zabeeba Mohamed's philosophy is simple: Everybody needs help at first.

Mohamed arrived in Anchorage as a refugee nine years ago, when the city was just beginning to resettle people fleeing conflicts and repressive regimes from all over the world in larger numbers. At the time, she didn't speak English. She was caring for a 10-month-old daughter. She remembers the helpless feeling of relying on interpreters and social workers to negotiate her new life in an unfamiliar city and country, the confusion of taking the bus to the grocery store but not knowing how to get home.

A lot has changed for Mohamed. Today, she is a 41-year-old single mother of two daughters. She has a high school diploma, U.S. citizenship, a driver's license and a comfortable apartment in Fairview. She speaks English. She drives a taxi for her day job but quietly pursues her real love in the rest of her time: Using her hard-won knowledge of America to help other newcomers untangle the mysteries of their new home, from earthquakes to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

'Everything was so hard'

On a recent afternoon, Mohamed served tea made by boiling fresh ginger and adding black tea leaves at her dining table, along with black caraway seed bread popular in Ethiopia and apple slices. She scrolled through a cellphone in a Hello Kitty case packed with pictures and videos of her family.

Mohamed was born in Ethiopia during a time of war and instability. Her father worked for the government, and when that government was overthrown he was put in jail, she said. She was in high school at the time. Her family brought food to the prison. It was during that time that she began to think of leaving.

She went first to Lebanon, where she married a man from Darfur, Sudan. After years of waiting, they got word that they would be resettled in Alaska. The news was mixed. Friends in Lebanon described Alaska as a frozen, desolate landscape.


"They transport by dog!" she remembers being told.

She touched down in Anchorage on Sept. 11, 2008.

Mohamed and her husband split up, and she went to a women's shelter. Slowly, she staked out a life for herself in Anchorage. In a neat binder, she keeps a scrapbook filled with mementos of her progress: An employee award from the Hilton Garden Inn, one of her first jobs in Alaska. A certificate congratulating her on getting her high school diploma. Her naturalization certificate, from when she became a U.S. citizen. An award for volunteering at Catholic Social Services. She had another daughter, now age 3.

"Little by little, you change your life," she said.

A more formal role as a leader in the East African and Arabic speaking community began with an Anchorage Literacy Program project to train women to become "peer language navigators." The peer language navigators are meant to act as a point of contact for people in their community — in Mohamed's case, Arabic-speaking immigrants in Anchorage — to demystify the medical system and impart public health messages that might not otherwise get across, said Linda Shepard, a nurse and community outreach coordinator for Providence Alaska Medical Center who has taught the peer navigators.

In the class, the women talked about health topics people in their communities were curious about: Everything from what to do in an emergency to diabetes and healthy eating. Mohamed loved it. In Ethiopia, she had for years volunteered for the Red Cross as the equivalent of an emergency medic. (Another certificate thanking her for four years of service is tucked in the binder.) Her dream was to become a nurse. She now serves as an emissary to her Arabic-speaking immigrant community on all things health, nutrition and health care related.

Next, she became a certified personal care attendant through a class taught by Shepard. Personal care attendants work in homes or long-term care facilities doing basic care including bathing and toileting patients. The work is low paying, but it can be an entry point into the health care field. Demand for personal care attendants is expected to grow by 17 percent by 2024 in Alaska, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

This year, she is helping Shepard teach one of three classes. On a Tuesday night in January, she led a discussion with students about the ethics of a hypothetical scenario in which a care attendant posted on Facebook about a patient's heart attack. Sensing frustration, she leaned in to pat a student on the back and ask how she was doing.

"Sometimes I tell them my life example," she said.


On a February afternoon, Mohamed and her neighbor went to tackle the most bureaucratic of American rituals: a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Husniyah Aljaanhi, 65, lives in the apartment directly below Mohamed. She is from Babylon, Iraq, but arrived as a refugee in June 2014 with her two adult daughters.

"It's a hard life in Iraq. Very hard. It's very dangerous. Killing, terrorism," she said through her daughter-in-law, who interpreted.

She was happy to learn that she had a neighbor who spoke both Arabic and English. Like Mohamed, Aljaanhi felt like it was hard to do anything without a translator helping her.

"I really feel comfortable to know that she is here."

At the DMV, Mohamed helped her neighbor fill out paperwork. Together they puzzled over a question that asked where the driver was "domiciled," then realized it was a question just for commercial drivers. They chatted in Arabic while waiting for Aljaanhi's number to be called.

While she extends an open invitation for help, Mohamed makes a point of telling new arrivals that they must learn to do things for themselves. For some, especially women, it is a role they aren't used to.

"You have to be independent here," she said.


At the counter, Mohamed explained to her neighbor to press her forehead to the viewer for an eye test. At the photo-taking station, she fixed Aljaanhi's collar. They headed back outside together into the sunny winter day.

Marc Lester contributed reporting to this story. 

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.