Idil Abdull has been making headlines in the past few months for her role in bringing awareness to the issue of autism in the Somali community. One of the founders of the Somali American Autism Foundation, Abdull has been sounding the alarm about the large numbers of Somali American children struggling with autism. Last week, the MN Department of Health issued a report confirming the high numbers, though they say the link between ethnicity and the disease is inconclusive.
Abdull is searching for answers, and building awareness in her community. But Abdull is not unused to struggle. A refugee from Somalia, she has spent her whole life fighting for the survival of her family.
One of seven children born in Somalia, Abdull moved to the United States when she was eleven.
“They sent us in order,” Abdull said. First, her eldest brother moved to the United States. Then her second brother left to study in India. Her third eldest brother got married, so he stayed in Somalia. Then it was Idil’s turn. She moved to Boston to live with her eldest brother, Mohammed, and his wife.
“He was like my Dad,” Abdull said about her brother. Because Mohammed’s wife didn’t speak Somali, they all had to speak English in the house. Abdull said she remembers saying “Are you kidding me?” when she found out about she wasn’t allowed to speak Somali in the house, but looking back, she said it helped her to learn English faster, and her brother helped her.
Abdull failed every class but typing and gym her first year, but with hard work she was able to conquer the language. “I learned the words for money first,” she said, and eventually caught up and graduated from high school in Boston in 1991.
Around the same time, civil war broke out in Somalia.
“I couldn’t get a hold of anyone back home,” Abdull said. When she did hear news, it wasn’t good. A number of her relations had died in the violence. She decided she needed to go and bring her mother and her youngest brothers and sisters to the United States.
Abdull obtained a passport without much trouble. “It was really easy,” Abdull said. “I must have had an angel.”
She went to Egypt, and then was transferred to London, where she had relatives. “My aunt told me I was crazy, but she said she had a friend in Djibouti, a country right next to Somalia.” Her aunt’s friend was a diplomat, and said that he would help her.
In Djibouti, staying with her aunt’s friend, Abdull learned that her stepfather had been killed. She also learned that her mother and sister were in Northern Somalia, near Ethiopia. With the help of her aunt’s friend, she got a passport to Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, Abdull met up with more relatives, and again, they told her she was crazy for attempting to enter Somalia, but they helped her find a cargo truck driver who would transport her. At each town they went through, she would ask people if they had seen her mother. Finally, she reached Harageysa, the capitol of the northern part of Ethiopia, and learned where her mother was staying. Abdull said that when she reached their house, her mother “was sitting under a tree. She was wearing her mourning dress. She looked very fragile.”
Abdull said that when she first saw her brother and sister, they asked, “Who is this white person?” She has lighter skin than they do, but also was dressed in nice clothing, and had a bright red Samsonite valise. Her apparent prosperity contrasted so much with their war-ravaged appearance, that they didn’t recognize her as their own sister.
It took Abdull and her family a while to get out of Somalia, but eventually she was able to find a place in Egypt where they could stay and the children could go to school until she was able to bring them back to the United States.
Once she had succeeded in bringing her mother and siblings to safety, Abdull went to college in Oklahoma, at Langston University, where she studied health administration, graduating summa cum laude in 1996.
In college, Abdull’s brother Mohammed died of cancer, and his four children fell under her care. The eldest child was in sixth grade and the youngest was in kindergarten. During her studies she also met her future husband, and the two married in 1999, and moved to Minnesota.
In 2002, Abdull gave birth to Abdullahi, her beautiful, healthy son. It was not until two and a half years later that Abdull, who by that time was divorced, found that her son had stopped talking.
“I took him for speech therapy, and eventually I learned about autism.” She saw two different doctors, and learned about other Somali families who had the same problem.
“I am still dealing with it,” Abdull said. “It’s very difficult. Your kid has autism — there’s no cause, no cure. I’m so baffled by the lack of people trying to find out the cause.”
Abdull lived in Burnsville. After trying out several private schools, she began driving her child each day to Minneapolis, where she heard there were better programs for special needs students. There she discovered that there were many other Somali families who struggled with the same problem.
She began trying to work with the school system, helping other families, but she said she never got anywhere. Eventually she helped found the Somali American Autism Foundation.
“The reason I started it was not only are there so many kids with autism,” she said. “No one is telling them what to do. Autism is not just a behavior, it’s a medical condition. We started this so we can help them in our own way in our own language.”
Because being a mother to Abdullahi takes so much time, she is unable to fill the role of executive director for the foundation, a position that the organization is currently seeking to fill. But Abdull, a woman of tremendous energy, is a vital force to the organization. Between doctor visits and caring for her son, she voices her concerns to the media, the health department, senators such as Amy Klobuchar, and anyone else that will listen.
Despite all the pressures that being an activist mother of an autistic child demands, Abdull tries to find moments of peace: “When my kid is taking a nap, I drink tea,” she says.
Abdull said that autism has taught her to be patient, tolerant, accepting. “I never used to notice people. Now I notice everybody. We are all unique in our own way.”
Despite the struggle, her son is the light of her life. “I love everything about him,” she said. “From the way he smiles, the way his face lights up when he sees me. He’s my perfect child.”
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.