Sudan to Rochester: 8 questions with Elsamawal Ali

By Anne Halliwell | Post Bulletin

After winning the immigration lottery, Elsamawal Ali came to the United States in 2000. He was a trained doctor in Sudan, but knew he wanted to study for the U.S. medical license exam. However, he has also spent the past 20 years supporting his family in Africa, then his wife and five children in the states — responsibilities which slowed that process.

Today, he works as a medical interpreter at Mayo Clinic (since 2011) and hopes to enter a medical residency in the next one to three years — hopefully in Med City. “Rochester gave me a lot, so I need to pay it back. Rochester has been very kind to me, and I hope to do the same,” he said.null

Can you tell me more about how you’ve been working toward becoming a doctor in the States?

I was trained at a medical school in Sudan. In the final year of medical school, I won the lottery to come to America. Usually, that process takes about a year. … I went to the interview at the American embassy in Cairo, I had been accepted, and I came here. I wanted to be a doctor in America, that (was) my real motivation that I told myself. When I actually get here, the story gets a little bit different, because I had to support myself and I had to support my family back home. So I started working in the beginning — I said, “let me first establish some savings before I start studying,” because the medical licensing exam is very expensive. … So I’m working, sending money back home, and saving a little bit. … I finished all of my testing, I passed all of them, but it took me a long time. After that, my graduation was far away (in the past), so they needed fresh graduates. … I decided to move to Minnesota because of Mayo Clinic, so I could be involved in some research and interpretation in the hospital. This would give me better chances — I’d be inside the hospital and inside the clinic, and this (could) give me help and recommendation letters. … I didn’t find a research position, the position I was looking for, so meanwhile, I have been doing the interpretations. Before, I had participated in research, before I moved here to Minnesota, but it was very short — like two months. Here, there are more opportunities for full research. … I went here for the chance that I could get into the residency program with the recommendation from several doctors.


What’s kept you going and motivated for the last decade of work?

Since I came here, I’ve had in mind (that) I should be a doctor, whatever it takes me. I should be a doctor. That’s a big motivation for me. My dad, who passed away in a car accident four years ago — he had been a big supporter, a big help, and he liked to see me as a doctor. … When I came here to Rochester, because I work in Mayo Clinic, I see the doctors around me all the time. Medical stuff around me all the time.

What has your experience been like as an immigrant working there? Do you know other people who are going through the same retraining process?

Yes, yes! Because there are people working at Mayo Clinic from all over the world, it has been very easy. There are doctors who are Sudanese, there are Somalis, there are people from all over. In my department, the language department for interpretation, we have about — just for example — by language, for the Arabic language, we have 20 to 25 interpreters. About 12 to 15 of them are doctors. Doctors who didn’t practice because of the circumstances that happened to me, it happened to them. … People around me understand what is going on. Some of the medical doctors practicing at Mayo, they are immigrants. They went through the same process that I am going through right now. They are a very big support. … There is a big diversity in that department because we have interpreters from South America, from Europe, from Africa, from Asia — just a big community. … And (we) all share the different cultures, bring different food, talk different languages, try to learn from each other. It has a big impact in my life.

Have you found that your medical background is helpful in your current job? Or vice versa?

I’m very interested in medicine and pediatrics, so when I go to interpret for a doctor or a physician … When I see a case that I don’t know, that tells me to go home and read about it. I get more knowledge of the different diseases.


Have you learned any lessons from your time as an interpreter that you’ll be able to apply as a physician?null

Number one, patience. They are so patient. Some patients don’t like to stop (talking), so they don’t. … They (the doctors) are such good listeners, and active listeners. They are very patient with them, and very helpful. … That’s really touched my heart, and I when I practice, I will try to apply all of this.

What sort of advice would you give to someone moving to America to become a doctor?

My advice to anyone just starting is to have someone to support you financially. If you have a big financial support, then you can be done with your testing in a very short time and you can find a position. At the beginning, my main challenge was the financial challenge. … If you know someone who can give you a loan, support you, then you can just study. … Not to be busy with working, thinking about working, sending money home. If you can find someone who can adopt this boy for some time, and then you can pay (them) back, this would be a very helpful point for you, so you can really put all your time just on studying.

What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?

It’s actually my family. I actually have my family here with me, my wife and five kids. They are very successful in their studying. To me, it’s a great accomplishment to see my kids happy and doing great in their schooling. I appreciate the chance that they have here, in America.null

Where would you like to be in five years?

In five years, I see myself as a physician, a pediatrician in the Gonda Building. Seeing the little ones and treating them, and making them happy.

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