From Humanitarian to Refugee to Humanitarian Again


Some people’s hearts can be seen on their face and in their manner.  Abdi Hassan is such a person.  His eyes sparkle with energy, his smile is warm, his facial expressions are an open invitation to converse.  He listens intently, speaks thoughtfully, and is scrupulously fair to people.  He’s seen war, death, cruelty, and hunger in his work and his life.  But the hardships he’s endured, and helped others through, have only rooted him more thoroughly in kindness.

Abdi is a Cross Cultural Counselor at Refugees Northwest, and it’s hard to imagine someone better suited to the role.  His kindness and insight are born of deep personal experience.

“I started out with a Bachelor’s Degree from Somalia National University,” says Abdi, who went on to Canada working as a lecturer and associate professor.  He returned to his native Somalia to work with the Ministries of Higher Education and Agriculture in 1984 and earned his Master’s Degree. But by 1990, the civil war reached the capital city of Mogadishu, so Abdi and his family moved north to a more peaceful area.

He started work with the United Nations in several countries across the globe, including Sudan while the worst of the war there raged in Darfur.  “People’s homes were burned to the ground, water wells were destroyed, the population was forced into refugee camps.  People lacked shelter and food, it was all very sad,” he reflected.

Abdi’s work included rebuilding water wells, work he described as especially rewarding.  “It was so exciting when the water started to flow.  Something as simple as that made so much difference, and for those few minutes, everything was all right.”

By 2007, Abdi was employed by the United Nations Development Program in Iraq, with a home base in Amman, Jordan.  The U.N. workers ventured into Baghdad and Kurdistan, despite the dangers.  Eventually, Abdi was rejoined by his wife and children who were being educated in international schools in Pakistan.  By then, when his project wound down in Iraq, it was simply too dangerous to return to Somalia.  He remembered his childhood in a beautiful country, with wildlife and forest.  He remembered children being happy and safe, playing soccer outside.  He remembered being raised up by the community.  But war had changed all of that in Somalia. “It was not our country anymore,” he says.

“I knew what it was like at home.  Children being taught to use guns, schools closed, violence everywhere.  There was nowhere for us to go.  So, I decided to apply for admission to the United States, all of us, as refugees.”  The kind, hard-working man with years of experience helping others through the United Nations was now a refugee, in need of help himself.

Abdi describes four years of vetting for himself and his family, including interviews of his youngest, just 6-years old at the time.  There were hair-raising deadlines to gather paperwork from work contracts to confirmations from supervisors, questions from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Office of Migration, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  “It was all worth it, “Abdi smiles, “when that final stamp went on our papers saying ‘approved’.”

Once in the United States, in 2014, Abdi and his children had the advantage of already speaking English. The children were able to join school at the age-appropriate grade level and quickly made friends.  His wife began ESL classes and they made a home.  “This is our country now,” he confirms.

Shortly, Abdi found Refugees Northwest and began to volunteer.  He helped out at the front desk, assisted with filing, receiving clients, answering the phone.  By March 2016, he joined our staff as a Cross Cultural Counselor.  He spends his time with Arabic-speaking clients from Sudan, Iraq, and non-Arabic speaking clients from Congo, Kenya and more, building trust, helping them to adjust to a new country and a new life.  “I can relate to them, help them to open up.  Trust is the most important facet, then treatment will follow.  They know that I know what they’ve experienced.”

“I’ve seen a lot of death, a lot of loss.  When I talk to clients, I give them space, and a safe place.  We are all human.  It gives people hope to be heard, to be cared for.”  As you can imagine, he is the gold standard in this work.


“Abdi’s quiet wisdom is not just invaluable to his clients, but to the whole staff,” says Beth Farmer, Director of Refugees Northwest.  “He has a calming presence that that makes everyone instantly feel more centered and grounded.  You would never guess from his demeanor that he has worked in some of the most violence, conflict-ridden situations in the world.  Maybe that has given him a special insight.  We are truly lucky to know him.”

Amy Lloyd Wagner, Director of Community Programs for Refugees Northwest, describes him this way.  “I remember the first time I heard Abdi speak in a staff meeting.  Everyone was silent and glued to what he had to say.  I get that same feeling every time I talk with him.  I always want to hear his perspective, his opinion, and I appreciate the way he approaches his work with clients.  I have tremendous respect for him, and the respect that he shows me in return as a coworker humbles me, encourages me, urges me to do better work each day.  It’s an incredible honor to get to work with him.”

As civic discourse around immigration and refugee policy has coarsened, Abdi says he understands the range of emotions.  “I always urge my clients to embrace all the things that happen only in America.  We have been welcomed, helped with housing and food.  Everyone who comes here wants to work, no one wants to be idle.  My hope is that new people will be given a chance, and that in turn, resettled families will grow within our community.  There can be a misunderstanding that we don’t work, or are uneducated, or lazy, and that can lead to anger. But we don’t expect something for nothing.  We all have our part to play.”

Asked about his children, Abdi’s face lights up.  “They’re doing so well! My second oldest graduated from the University of Washington last year with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and has his first job.  My oldest son will graduate with an Aerospace Engineering degree in June.”  The youngest child is in school completing soon Grade 5, 2 girls graduated with AA degrees, and a daughter and a son are doing now their AA degrees in Green River College.  His wife is happy and settled as well.

The family all hold ‘green cards,’ and will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship in December.  “That is a great, great feeling,” Abdi says, “a blessing and an honor.”  This country will be lucky to have these new citizens.  In the meantime, Abdi’s work at Refugees Northwest continues, the humanitarian turned refugee turned humanitarian again is an inspiration to us all.

“I so enjoy giving back, why not? If I can give back even a small amount, it gives me happiness and satisfaction.  That is my life’s work.”