Mustafa Omar (left), Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota (right). Credit: Qatra Issa and Faisel Elmi (left), Alex Koyler | MPR News (right)

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Mustafa Omar, like most 13-year-olds, is filled to the brim with energy. He channels it through outdoor activities, including soccer, basketball, and running.

“He’s really active all the time,” said his mother, Qatra Isse.

Because of Mustafa’s exuberance, and the fact that he had never experienced a serious health issue before, the Burnsville boy’s family was shocked when he suddenly fell ill in September on a family trip back home to Somalia.

“He was just fine,” Qatra said. 

She remained in disbelief as she recounted her son’s mysterious and unusually rapid decline. Doctors in abroad and in the United States haven’t been able to diagnose his illness.

Qatra repeated herself: “He was just fine. He was just fine.”

The family and the local nonprofit, Humanitarian African Relief Organization, scrambled to create a GoFundMe account on September 26 to raise $209,000 to airlift Mustafa from Kenya to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. While the fundraiser is far from reaching its goal—$38,437 was raised by Thursday afternoon—Mustafa was successfully airlifted to the Mayo Clinic on October 1.

The donation amount displayed by the GoFundMe isn’t representative of all of the aid the family has received, however.

Qudubi Mursal works with a Burnsville mosque, Dar-us-Salam, and has helped the family in their fundraising efforts. While the GoFundMe represents donations from the general public, Qudubi said it does not demonstrate the amount that Mustafa’s extended family has contributed, which he said was likely in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“This system of supporting each other through family ties is very common within Somali culture,” he said.

About 1,000 donors, loved ones, and a bank loan contributed to Mustafa’s airlift.

Mohamud Mohamed, the executive director of Humanitarian African Relief Organization, said the family’s expenses aren’t over.

“The costs are certainly not marginal,” he said. “Fundraising covers a good chunk or perhaps close to a majority, but there’s still so many costs after.”

Physical therapy as an example of an added expense, Mohamud.

A sudden illness

While Mustafa was abroad, he woke up one morning feeling too fatigued to go to school. His mother encouraged him to stay at home and rest. 

Once Mustafa laid down, however, he did not get up again. That same day, he began having violent seizures, and was rushed to a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, his mother said.

Soon, he fell into a coma.

He was airlifted to Nairobi, Kenya, for further treatment, but the family was still left without answers. Some thought it was malaria, meningitis, or some sort of virus from an insect bite. The closest potential diagnosis his doctors could find, Qudubi said, was autoimmune encephalitis, a condition where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the brain.

But there were no concrete answers.

“After weeks of diagnosis, treatment, and medication, Mustafa is still in a coma and the doctors have yet to determine his condition, diagnosis, or possible causes,” said a September 26 post on his GoFundMe page. “Their only suggestion is for Mustafa to be transferred to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota via air ambulance. The family had already spent more than $100,000 in medical expenses to care for Mustafa.”

“The travel cost alone to transfer Mustafa to Mayo Clinic will cost $209,000 minimum because he has to be transferred to a chartered ambulance plane because of his condition and medical needs,” the post continued.

Situations like Mustafa’s aren’t an everyday occurrence, but they aren’t incredibly rare, either, Mohamud said.

This isn’t the first time the Humanitarian African Relief Organization has stepped in to help East African families living in the United States. The organization is often called upon to aid fundraising efforts among the diaspora.

“On occasion, we’re called to help because we have a huge reach and a very sizable network,” Mohamud said.

Mohamud said that Mustafa’s case is one of their more high-profile local fundraisers, mostly due to his age and the uniqueness of his situation.

While most of the organization’s relief and fundraising efforts are focused on residents of the Horn of Africa, they also work with East Africans living in the United States, like Mustafa’s family.

“We’re happy to be trusted to get this aid to Mustafa,” Mohamud said.

Mohamud suggests that U.S. travelers prepare for potential emergencies abroad by making sure that they have insurance, and by informing others, including the U.S. Embassy, of their travel plans.

‘He’s just a normal kid’

The world of sports isn’t the only arena in which Mustafa shines. He excels in math and science, and is often at the top of his class. 

“He’s really a good student, especially when it comes to science and math,” Qatra said.

Mustafa and his four siblings were born and raised in Minnesota; he is the second oldest. He attends school in Apple Valley, and is loved by his friends and teachers, his family said.

“He’s just a normal kid,” said his father, Faisel Elmi.

When Mustafa was moved to Nairobi, his mother traveled back to Minnesota from Somalia with his siblings so they could go to school. Faisel was with Mustafa for the duration of his airlift back to the United States. Now, both of Mustafa’s parents are by their son’s side. 

Mustafa hasn’t received a diagnosis yet, and remains in a coma from which his care team is not sure when he will emerge, his parents said. But, his doctors feel that his condition is improving, Qudubi said, and his family feels that he’s in good hands at the Mayo Clinic. 

“They are taking good care of him,” Qatra said. “We are so happy for him to be here.”

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Noor Adwan was an intern at Sahan Journal. She is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Minnesota.