Our staff, our stories: Ahmed and Alison Bashier

Ahmed and Alison Bashier have been husband and wife for going on two years. An interracial couple, Ahmed is Black, and Alison is white. They recently traveled to South Dakota from Rochester to attend a wedding in a town so small they had to drive about an hour to get there from the airport. The drive gave them plenty of time to notice the demographic in that part of the state. It was the area where, a few weeks earlier, thousands of bikers rode in from all over the country for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was a visible laxness that people had about wearing masks and social distancing as we drove through some little towns,” says Ahmed, an assistant supervisor in the Cytology and Molecular Anatomic Pathology laboratories. After they checked into their hotel, Ahmed was about to go park the car in the lot a couple blocks away. “Alison touched my arm and said, ‘Hey, do you want me to go with you?’ It took me a second to realize why she asked me this. That it was because of where we were, and because of the racial issues and tension going on in this country that we’ve both been aware of. Knowing Alison would be more comfortable if she walked with me, I accepted her offer. So we parked the car, then walked back to the hotel together.”

As evidenced by that trip, it’s not easy for the Bashiers to lower their guard, or to forget about racial inequalities and threats in today’s divisive climate.

Opposites attract

When Ahmed and Alison first got engaged, they wondered how their families would mix. The two couldn’t come from more different backgrounds. Ahmed was born in Oman and raised as a Muslim by Sudanese parents. In 2000, when he was 8, Ahmed’s parents “won the lottery,” which means they acquired a hard-to-get American visa.

“They wanted better educational opportunities for me and my siblings,” he says. “Rochester is where we settled. There’s a pretty large Sudanese community here, so that’s what drew them here. There are also fairly large Hmong, Filipino, Cambodian, and Somali communities in Rochester, to name a few, making it a relatively diverse city in Minnesota.”

Alison, on the other hand, grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin — a small, predominantly white town. She didn’t leave Appleton until she went to college in Winona, Minnesota, to become a registered nurse, joining Mayo thereafter. You might call her life “sheltered” compared to Ahmed’s.

“Appleton is a really small town in a very conservative area,” Alison says. “We didn’t have a lot of diversity or variance of religions. I went to Lutheran schools. And like most people, we belonged to a Lutheran church. Even as my views have changed and developed, I carry some of those values with me. My parents gave me a great upbringing, and they taught me to be polite and respectful.”

Ahmed still is very much a part of his culture and religion. But he, too, has evolved into his own person. “I come from a Sunni-Muslim country, and with that religion comes a bit of conservatism,” he says. “Since being in America, I’ve broadened my perspective and world view, as one does when traveling or experiencing other cultures. It’s opened me up to different perspectives and viewpoints, and helped me appreciate the similarities in life experiences despite people having different upbringings.”

Wedding nerves

Amid the joy of anticipating their wedding, Ahmed and Alison were also a bundle of nerves.

“We struggled over how we would get both families together and have the type of party that would be fun for everyone without making anyone feel uncomfortable,” Alison says. “Ahmed’s family and a lot of his friends don’t drink alcohol, whereas I come from a place where that’s the thing you do at weddings.”

Finally, the Bashiers let go of trying so hard to please both of their families and turned the tables. “We finally ended up doing what would make us happy,” Alison says. They had a traditional American wedding followed by dinner and a big party, while featuring important elements of Sudanese traditions. “We had a henna artist come to the reception because henna body art a big part of weddings in Ahmed’s culture," Alison says. "And our DJ played traditional Sudanese music alongside our favorite party music.”

On Friday, the day before their American wedding, the Bashiers had a Muslim wedding ceremony at the local mosque. Then on Sunday, the day after the big bash, they enjoyed a traditional Sudanese reception with their mutual family and friends.

In short, their weekend wedding celebration was a huge success. “I think both families were so surprised at how much fun they had because there were people from each side who had never met before,” Alison says. “But it all meshed together so well. Ahmed and I were surprised ourselves because we were so nervous about how it was going to play out.”

Food as cultural immersion 

Ahmed’s cultural traditions and Muslim faith have begun to interest and influence Alison.

“Everything about Ahmed’s culture and religion was all brand new to me,” she says. “I really enjoy learning about it, and his family has been really helpful and are happy to teach me. Yet, I’m not expected to do this or that. They’re very open people as well, so it’s been a great experience, learning and being a part of his culture.”

For example, Alison participates in Ramadan with Ahmed, and she gets a crash immersion in Sudanese food every time they visit his parents. “The food there is amazing,” she says. “I wish I could learn to cook as good as my mother-in-law. And it’s not just these set dishes. She’s the best at throwing things together. It’s the spices and the way she flavors things, lots of fish, chicken, and mixed vegetables. She makes this soup that I love, and I don’t even know if I can replicate it because every time she tries to teach me how to cook, I can never manage to make is as delicious as she does. Her food always has that special touch that’s hard to reproduce.”

Ahmed chimes in: “There are some more knowable foods my mother makes, like sambosa, and I love when she makes falafel, and she makes a baklava-like dessert that’s a favorite of ours.”

Moving in the right direction

As an interracial couple, neither Ahmed nor Alison have ever experienced instances of outright racism or discrimination in their workplaces at Mayo Clinic. But there are nuances they’ve both noticed — interactions where someone could have perhaps displayed more sensitivity.

Alison shared one example. “I work with a small group of about thirty nurses, and one day I was talking with a coworker, who is also in an interracial marriage,” she recounts. “We were talking about our experiences and how being in an interracial marriage makes the Black Lives Matter movement really hit home for us. One of our older coworkers came up and said, ‘I just don’t understand what the big deal is,’ and she felt like these kind of racial issues are getting blown out of proportion."

Alison continues: “She said that without really thinking about how it affects us. Even though we’re not people of color, our loved ones are, and these are real issues that are happening to people. She didn’t mean to be offensive. It just showed a lack of understanding more than anything.”

For Ahmed, the Mayo Clinic environment reflects the diversity in surrounding Rochester that first drew his family here. But there is some room for improvement.

“At Mayo, I’ve been very fortunate, in that the institution itself is heavily focused on inclusion and diversity,” he says. “And while the clinic realizes it’s not quite there yet, they’re working on it from the top, and I think that really trickles down to its employees. I also feel fortunate that I haven’t experienced too many instances of what you would call ‘microaggressions’ in the workplace.”

Cultivating humanity

The Bashier wedding

Looking back on their wedding, the Bashiers feel the event was a shining example of how greater empathy and understanding can be fostered between two very different cultures via a communal exchange of customs and traditions on an intimate level.

“Every culture has its own customs and values that are often put into a spotlight at significant events such as weddings,” Ahmed says. “I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say an event like our wedding offers a chance to experience the humanity of someone who is different than you. Otherwise, I think there’s a disconnect when you’re thinking about a person as ‘the other,’ by which they become an almost abstract idea, and that’s all people have to go on about another race or culture. Whereas, when you’re actually meeting and being around them, you’re experiencing that person and their life, and what they are going through. If we can do that on any kind of level, no matter how small, I think it helps bridge those gaps between our differences, and maybe helps us realize that we’re all not so different after all.”

Chris Bahnsen

Chris J. Bahnsen covers emerging research and discovery for Mayo Clinic Laboratories. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Smithsonian Air & Space. He divides his time between Southern California and Northwest Ohio.