Call to prayer helps dentist’s Muslim patients feel at home
Somali dentist, once a refugee herself, fills in the gaps for new arrivals in Norway.
OSLO, Norway, March 3 (UNHCR) – On a dark and snowy afternoon in central Oslo, a recording of the Islamic call to prayer plays in a small dental practice above a pizza restaurant to try to make the mainly Muslim patients feel at ease.
Played on a computer App, the call is not intended to summon patients to prayer, but the sound is just one of the many ways in which 29-year-old Swedish-Somali dentist Amal Ali is making Norway’s new arrivals feel at home. To allow patients time to worship, she also factors breaks for prayer into the appointments schedule.
Ali fled to Scandinavia in 1991 with her family, and is happy to help the patients who, like herself, have refugee backgrounds. Some seeking care at her practice in Norway have low incomes and have never visited a dentist before.
“I have days when I feel I’m making a difference, and others when I am drained,” Ali said. “But the patients give me back so much. They teach me about Africa and the Middle East, they give me a glimpse of how their lives used to be. Then you remember we have something special in common – we all came from other countries, we all had other lives before we came here.”
When Ali’s family arrived in Sweden, they hoped it would be just a brief stay until the civil war in Somalia was over. However, the fighting in east Africa continues, causing a new exodus to northern Europe.
Ali has become one of a handful of Somali Swedes to qualify as a dentist. Having completed five years of study at Gothenburg University, she was awarded a dental licence in 2012 and worked for three years in her home town of Gothenburg before moving to Oslo, in neighbouring Norway.
“When you look at these refugees and you see people going through horrible conditions just to get the life I have here in Sweden or Norway, you realize how blessed you are,” she says.
Ali’s route into dentistry was not easy. When she first graduated, she was the only dentist from Africa and the only one who wore a hijab.
“In the beginning it was very tricky,” she says. “But then when I opened my mouth and they heard my Swedish and Gothenburg accent, they just let that go – and we could have fun.”
In early 2015, when an opportunity arose to work with predominantly Somali patients in Oslo, Ali saw a rare chance to treat people from the same background as her own.
One year on, she is learning to be a role model for other immigrants. Her patients in Oslo find it unusual to be treated by a Muslim woman. Young women want to talk to her about their dreams, education and ambitions. Somali men have asked to bring their daughters just so they can see that there is such a thing a Somali woman dentist, Ali said.
Some of the men mistake her for the receptionist. Then their attitude changes. “They become so respectful that you are female and you have made it. That is very common that this happens, because they have not met a Somali female dentist before. But when they do, they have huge respect,” she says.
Ali often meets refugees who come to Scandinavia with a goal, which they pursue tirelessly. Others, however, have given up and started to believe that they will never be accepted in society, no matter what they do.
“There is no bridge between those groups,” she says. “I would like to be that bridge and say ‘yes it was difficult, it wasn’t easy going through university to become a dentist, wearing the scarf, having your religion, praying five times a day, wanting to be a decent Muslim and at the same time be an excellent student. But you can do it. It’s difficult, but you can.’ “
Amal says she feels 99 per cent Swedish. However, working in Oslo – her “little Somalia”, as she calls it – is also a reminder of home. Whenever she can, she tries to offer some of her services free of charge.
“Not all Somalis were given the chance to come to Sweden and get a higher education, for free, which I was,” she says.
“For me to just work and pay taxes would be disrespectful to the people back home, that I don’t give back. I need to do something to show that I am still Somali also – while at the same time having a Swedish identity.”
Thanks to her hard work and the opportunities available in Sweden, Ali has shown that refugees can succeed.
“Try to fulfil your dreams, because you came to a country where you can. Come here with an open mind and try to utilize all the opportunities you can get. It is going to be a struggle, but it’s a struggle wherever you are in the world.”