FARGO — A 23-year-old nursing assistant at Sanford Health and nursing student at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead will be traveling to Bangladesh later this month to help at a clinic in a refugee camp for Rohingya refugees driven from Myanmar.
Abdu Frederickson, the nursing student, has also established a GoFundMe site to raise money for an organization that is helping Rohingya refugees.
"There's a lot of things that can be done in this world to help people out," he said. "Knowing where to start is the hardest part. When I heard about this, I knew I had to do it. I thought this would be an opportunity to put my skills to work in the real world to help people."
Since August, more than 650,000 Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh. Rohingya have long faced discrimination in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar and lately that hostility has turned violent.
A Rohingya militant group on Aug. 25 attacked more than 30 police posts in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine, where the Rohingya population is concentrated. In response, Myanmar's military mounted a brutal campaign against the group, backed by Buddhist mobs, that has resulted in the destruction of 354 Rohingya villages.
The United Nations has described the military offensive as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." More than half of Myanmar's Rohingya population has been driven from the country. Doctors without Borders estimated at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of violence.
Refugee camps in Bangladesh now house more than 800,000 Rohingya. Half of them are children and 30 percent are under age 5.
Frederickson, who lives in Moorhead, will travel to Bangladesh on Jan. 25 with three doctors, including Mohamed Sanaullah, a physician at Sanford, as part of a medical mission initiated by the Deccan Alumni Association of North America, an organization of graduates of a medical college in Hyderabad, India. Sanaullah, who grew up in Hyderabad, attended the college and is a member of the group.
Sanaullah is a longtime friend of Frederickson's father, Yahya Frederickson, an English professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Sanaullah is a board member at the Islamic Society of Fargo-Moorhead and the Frederickson family are members.
The senior Frederickson, who grew up in Moorhead and whose parents are Scandinavian, converted to Islam while in the Peace Corps in Yemen. He married a Yemeni woman and they gave birth to twins, including Abdu, while still in Yemen, and then relocated to the United States.
Abdu first heard about the mission from a surgeon at Sanford, then received an e-mail from Sanaullah with information about it. He expressed interest in participating, Sanaullah investigated whether someone with his skills could take part, and found out he could.
"He's a good guy, always helpful," Sanaullah said about Abdu. "He has a good reputation at work. He's a hard-working kid. He is compassionate."
'I feel blessed'
Frederickson's life plans have changed fundamentally in the last few years. He graduated from Moorhead High School in 2013, then entered North Dakota State University, intending to major in mechanical engineering.
He quickly discovered engineering wasn't what he wanted to do and dropped out after a single semester.
"I found out I didn't want to design tractor equipment for the rest of my life," he said.
He then joined the Marine Reserves "to become more of a man" but was changed by the experience because he became "part of something bigger than yourself." His experience in the Marines also stimulated his desire to help others.
As part of his Marine training, he completed a combat lifesaving class that first inspired him to think about becoming a nurse. His mother had worked in nursing in Yemen.
"I want to have a job that I enjoy, but I also want to give back to people," he said. "I felt like that nursing had that — every single day you're helping people."
In fall 2016, Frederckson enrolled at M State and began taking courses required for admission to the nursing program. He also applied for a job as a nursing assistant at Sanford and in October 2016 was hired and assigned to work in Sanford's oncology department downtown.
He will formally start the nursing program at M State this month, though will miss the first few days of classes because of his medical mission. He will return from Bangladesh on Feb. 5. He hopes to graduate in December 2018.
He wasn't sure whether he was cut out for such work, but he took to it immediately.
"It was a shot in the dark, to be honest," he said. "But instantly I fell in love with it. I never felt like I was working. I was doing something to help the world."
Working with cancer patients, some of whom face grim prospects, was also a life-altering experience for him.
"It was definitely humbling," he said. "It's safe to say that I didn't know what I was getting into, but a year later I can't imagine working on any other floor. You think you are helping them but they are giving you so much back. It's rewarding and difficult at the same time. I feel blessed and lucky to have this opportunity. I'm learning so much about just being a human being."
'I'm more excited than scared'
Traveling to Bangladesh to help doctors at a clinic in a Rohingya refugee camp will be a different sort of challenge.
The crowded, squalid Rohingya refugee camps have become their own humanitarian crisis. Communicable diseases, such as measles and diphtheria, have swept through the camps. Sixty percent of water in wells has been contaminated with fecal matter. Many children in the camps suffer from malnutrition.
But Frederickson's outlook as a Marine, which teaches soldiers to overcome fear, makes him unconcerned about what he might encounter.
"I'm more excited than scared," he said. "It's probably not going to be the most pleasant situation, but I'm going to get through it. There are people that need help. It's something I have to do."
Frederickson established his GoFundMe site last week to raise money for the One Ummah Foundation, which is providing food, shelter and supplies to Rohingya refugees. People can contribute to his GoFundMe campaign at https://www.gofundme.com/kw63r-rohingya-refugee-crisis