Jameelah Hassoon knew it was only a matter of time before they came after her husband and children. Iraqi extremists in Baghdad were targeting anyone who worked for American-owned companies, and her husband worked for UPS.

Hassoon didn't think about her house, her car or her long career as an anesthesiologist. She and her family fled.

But now that she's settled in Minnesota, Hassoon faces a different kind of insecurity: She may never get to practice medicine again.

"I got depressed because, here I am at 50 years of age, and I can't just start over," Hassoon said. "I used to be a doctor there, and here it is no good."

Hassoon, who works as an interpreter, is one of more than 200 foreign-trained doctors in Minnesota who cannot practice medicine here because they can't get licensed, according to experts.

They reflect the sharp increase in Minnesota's foreign-born population over the past decade -- but also a dramatic shift in the skills mix of American immigrants. A recent study by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., found that high-skill immigrants in the United States now outnumber those with low skills; in the Twin Cities, there are 125 immigrants and refugees with college degrees for every 100 who lack a high school diploma.

Getting a boost

Now an innovative project at the University of Minnesota aims to help the medical professionals get licensed -- addressing both their professional frustrations and a shortage of physicians in Minnesota's immigrant communities.

"The doctors come to America and they have to get a job to make money, pass the examinations -- and then residency programs may not even consider them," said Patricia Walker, director of the Center for International Health at Bloomington-based HealthPartners.

The doctors come from places such as Somalia, Iraq, Cuba and Russia, and once they arrive in the United States they must get re-licensed to practice medicine. The process requires them to pass exams, get clinical experience and compete for limited slots in residency programs.

Residency programs at local hospitals often won't accept immigrant doctors because they fear it will hurt their image in a highly competitive field, Walker wrote in a report earlier this year.

But helping the doctors get recertified could ease the state's shortage of medical professionals, especially in immigrant communities.

"We should not waste this resource ... with these immigrants who have been trained, are very smart and have been doctors," said state Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Mpls. "We should not let this resource go by."

From ER doc to interpreter

Adelberto Torres was an emergency room and intensive-care doctor at a 600-bed hospital in Cuba until he fled to the United States in 2008. Today he works as an interpreter at St. Mary's Clinic in St. Paul while he struggles to get back into the practice of medicine.

He admits it hasn't been easy to go from treating patients as the second-highest ranking doctor to being a volunteer. He describes the frustration with a reference to the Bible and Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

"It has its sacrifices, but it humbles you," Torres said. "They are hard lessons, but it teaches you things you wouldn't learn otherwise."

In 2010, Berglin helped pass a bill that provided $150,000 to the U to help train three immigrant physicians for a better chance at getting into a residency program.

The three doctors, all from Somalia, completed the year-long training and got accepted to a residency with the Family Medicine and Community Health Program at the U.

"They measure up to any other applicant," said Dr. Will Nicholson, an instructor in the program. "I don't want to train a charity case. I want to train someone I know I can send my kids to."

Liban Hired was one of the three. On arriving in the United States in 2000, he worked two full-time jobs to keep his family afloat -- one at a Best Buy distribution center and one at a photo studio. He had no time to get his medical license.

"I came with a suitcase of clothes and that was it. You have to get a house, you have to pay the first month of rent," Hired said.

Two years later, Hired began studying for his medical exams and shadowing doctors at local clinics. On June 16, he finally began his residency. Upon finishing, Hired and the other two doctors will practice in under-served communities.

"It's an incredible feeling,'' he said. "We don't have enough Somali physicians, and that is going to be very helpful.''

Security, if not a profession

For now, Hassoon is at peace with her situation. She doubts she'll ever be able to get into a residency, but she continues to study for her medical exams.

What brings her peace is that her children are safe and able to pursue their dreams. Her daughter, following her mother's love for medicine, is pursing a career in pharmacy.

"You have to lose something to gain something," Hassoon said. "We gained the most important thing, security."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028