Every time Sami Mesgun, a first year UNLV School of Medicine student, thinks about the experience of his family, it seems more like a miracle.
When you hear his story, you can’t help but remember the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
It is an American Dream story, where hard work pays off, where the child of poor immigrants pledges to give better healthcare back to the country that kept hope alive for his family, where dreams of leaving grinding poverty behind still can come true.
Mesgun’s parents grew up in Eritrea, which won a 30 year war of independence from Ethiopia in 1991. They didn’t escape the warfare together, first meeting in the nearby country of Sudan, where they eventually -- after overcoming some harrowing hostility toward refugees -- received the physical and legal protections that allowed them to come to the United States.
“Out of fear for their lives, they fled, hiding during the day and trekking at night, entrusting strangers with their lives, and living with the uncertainty of another tomorrow,” Mesgun wrote in a piece for his alma mater, Cornell University. “My dad, in his twenties, abandoned his livelihood of selling chickens...my mom was only a teenager…her schooling was interrupted and her dream of one day becoming a healthcare provider was permanently put on hold.”
Mesgun’s father first came to the U.S. and then Las Vegas in 1982 with the help of the Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program. More than a decade later his parents would marry, his mother joining her husband in the U.S. in 1994.
Not long afterward, the couple started a family. Mesgun, who graduated near the top of his class at Durango High School, is the oldest at 24. He received a merit scholarship to the Ivy League’s Cornell University, graduating with a degree in human development. His younger brother is nearing graduation from UNLV, where he’ll get a degree in finance. His younger sister is in high school at Durango.
“I still find it miraculous that my dad was able to be the family’s sole provider as a taxi driver,” says Mesgun, who notes that after his father drove a taxi 12 hours a day for 10 years, the family was able to move from a two bedroom apartment, his dad purchasing a three bedroom house.
Not surprisingly, Mesgun is especially grateful to the U.S. for giving his parents a chance at a new life and for educational programs aimed at helping low income disadvantaged youth, including the Upward Bound program held through UNLV. He’s also thankful his parents -- his dad finished the third grade, his mother the ninth -- stressed education as a way to a better life.
“When I was younger, my mother bought me English workbooks to work on grammar on the weekends even though she had difficulty with the language. She made me give the workbooks to the teacher on Monday to make sure I did them right.”
If Mesgun wasn’t studying, he was running track and cross country for Durango High School, becoming captain of the cross country team his senior year. “I still run a couple miles every day. I love the feeling it gives me.”
According to the essay Mesgun wrote to help him get into medical school, it was while he was in middle and high school that he started thinking about becoming a physician. That was the same time he was accompanying his dad to medical appointments.
My role was not only part interpreter but also part comforter. Language and cultural barriers all too often got in the way of my father experiencing the best care and highest quality outcomes, even with me by his side to clarify things and reassure him. Though his physicians were well-trained and caring, he never truly felt comfortable during his visits.That changed once my father began seeing a physician who took the time to understand his cultural beliefs regarding health (God’s Will) and lay out his presentation of health problems in a way that made more sense for him. Almost immediately, visits took on a different meaning, and the barriers of discomfort and lack of trust peeled away. His need for me to serve as intermediary faded and eventually disappeared and amazingly, for the first time, I witnessed my father shape the kind of autonomy he wanted with his physician. He felt connected not only to his physician but now to the clinic itself and other care providers. This experience with my father was an early spark in my desire to attend medical school and become a physician who could communicate across cultural gaps and empower patients to take charge of their own health.