Somali immigrant sees home, hope in Sonoma County

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Shugri Salh leads an ordinary life in many respects. She lives in Rohnert Park with her husband and their three children. She spends her days working as a post-operative nurse and infusion specialist. She enjoys gathering close friends to share meals, chai tea and spirited conversations.

Her life was not always this way.

Born to a family of nine children, Salh was sent at a young age to help her “ayeeyo,” or grandmother, herd goats in a remote, arid region of central Somalia. There, she learned the nomadic ways of her mother’s family instead of attending school, as her father wished. She seemed destined for the life of a nomad and herder.

“If my mother’s plan was executed, I would be married to a nomadic man leading a nasty-tempered camel in the desert looking for a watering hole,” Salh said.

But she grew to love the rhythms of life at her grandmother’s house, from the “sound of the baby goats demanding milk” every morning to the steady hum of insects at night.

The 43-year-old is a natural storyteller who has woven threads of her eventful life into an upcoming memoir titled “The Last Nomad.”

Salh becomes animated as she tells her story in a Santa Rosa cafe, each moment painted in carefully chosen words. She learned the art of storytelling as a child, she said, listening as relatives shared poems and stories around the fire.

“I could visualize myself in those heroic stories, whether they were legends about my ancestors or traditional Somali folktales,” she writes in her memoir.

When meeting with her patients, Salh said she often tells colorful stories from her childhood. Those stories can help form a personal connection and distract patients from the procedure.

“I think people love storytelling,” Salh said. “I’m there starting their IV and talking about the desert and nomads and watering holes and lions and scorpions and everything. With that moment they’re with me, I take them totally into a whole different world.”

Though her childhood was at times idyllic, Salh also endured moments of considerable pain and uncertainty. Her mother died unexpectedly when she was 6 years old. Months later, she and her sister, Arafo, were circumcised in a ceremony she likens to the slaughter of goats.

To get an education, Salh moved into a Mogadishu orphanage with her five sisters.

As civil war engulfed the city in violence, Salh and her family sought refuge in Kenya. Years later, she would arrive in Ottawa, Canada, in the dead of winter.

There, she met her husband, Selehdin Salh, who later brought the family to Sonoma County in 1999 when he accepted a software engineering job in Petaluma.

Over time, Shugri Salh said she has found a strong community of friends in Sonoma County. She said her story is that of an immigrant, one hoping to find safety and opportunity in a new place.

In November, a large caravan of migrants fleeing persecution in Central and South America reached the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana. The national debate on immigration reform has reached new levels. Salh said photos of young mothers running from tear gas at the border evoked memories of her tense crossing into Kenya.

“This is the land of opportunity,” Salh said. “This is the Promised Land. Why don’t you want to give everybody the chance? You can have a law, but don’t lose your humanity.”

Salh said reading about people in crisis can leave her feeling powerless. But there is hope that sharing stories, she said, will continue to expose our shared humanity.

“You will kneel down with me in this story,” Salh said. “You will walk into my shoes, but also the shoes of so many other people like me. At the end of the day, that gives me hope — that I took you there. That I took you on a journey with me.”

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