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Fahima Abdulrahman: Sharing her Vision

Fahima Abdulrahman is an avid learner and storyteller. After fleeing Somalia’s civil war, she struggled to read and write. But instead of giving up, she learned how to tell the world’s stories with pictures and heart.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Gina Gotsill and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Elyama Katz. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Fahima sat frozen in her chair, staring at dots and dashes on a page that didn’t make any sense. Why couldn’t she read the words in front of her out loud, like the teacher had asked?
Fahima was in a new school, in Syria, more than 2,000 miles from her homeland of Somalia. Here, everyone spoke and wrote in Arabic, which Fahima was still learning. But she’d been studying so much! Her classmates snickered as a warm blush crept across Fahima’s cheeks. She didn’t know what to say. Why were those letters so jumbled and confusing? Could there be something wrong with her brain?
I’m Elyama Katzi. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Fahima Abdulrahman, video journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and storyteller for all.
Fahima spent the first four years of her life in Somalia, the easternmost country in Africa. Fahima lived with her family at her grandmother’s house, near a big tree that seemed to stretch to the sky. Whenever Fahima gazed at that tree, she felt a sense of calm.

Then, civil war broke out across Somalia. Guns and bombs sent Fahima’s family running in all directions. Fahima and her father were separated from her mother. It took years for them to find someplace that felt safe. First, she and her father fled west to Kenya. Then they moved again, staying with family in Saudi Arabia. Finally, they settled in the mountainous country of Syria, and were able to reunite with Fahima’s mom.

Fahima really wanted to learn Arabic, the language most people spoke in Syria. She’d missed years of schooling as her family searched for safety, but her parents taught her what they could at home. And then, when she was 13 years old, Fahima stepped into a classroom for the first time.

When the teacher asked her to read aloud, Fahima stared blankly. The poems she loved were PICTURES in her mind, but when she tried to READ them on a page, the words didn’t make sense.

It was doubly humiliating because at this school in Syria, teachers posted students’ grades in a public place. Fahima’s struggles were on the wall for everyone to see.

“I’ll try harder,” Fahima vowed to herself. “I will make sense of these words.”
Even though she struggled in school, Fahima was grateful for the relative stability she had living in Syria with her family. Until that was taken away too. When Fahima was 15 years old, her father died and her mother said they were moving again. This time, to England.

Moving to England meant learning ANOTHER new language: English. This would be the third language Fahima tried to learn and she felt very overwhelmed. She studied for every test — a lot. She drilled herself on grammar and vocabulary, but it still felt impossible.

How could someone who worked so hard… fail her tests over and over again? How could she learn to read and communicate as easily as her classmates? Fahima was sure she knew the answer.

“I must try harder,” she kept telling herself.
After years of struggling through books and exams, Fahima was able to go to Kingston University in London. Here, she could study whatever she wanted! Fahima still loved poetry and storytelling, so she chose to study film-making and television production. This way, she could tell stories with PICTURES and SOUND, and the written words couldn’t hold her back any more.

It was at Kingston that Fahima met many other students who had trouble with reading, just like she did. Someone she trusted told her about a test she could take to see how her brain processed letters and words. When the test results came back…Fahima was surprised to learn that she was dyslexic, which means her brain had trouble matching the letters she saw on the page with the sounds those letters made.

Aha! So it wasn’t about her trying hard enough or not. This was a condition that she couldn’t really change. But there were ways for her to adapt that would make languages and reading easier for her, and people who appreciated what she was experiencing! Fahima felt relieved and understood for the first time. She also realized that working with video, pictures and sound was the perfect career path for her!

Four years later, Fahima became the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Today, Fahima is a video journalist with the BBC, one of the most well-known news organizations in the world. She uses images, video and audio to share people’s stories. And she is one of only a few people of color reporting the news in the United Kingdom.

Fahima never let dyslexia stop her from trying her best in school and in life. And she never let the challenges of being a refugee and learning new languages stop her from following her dreams.

Her journey wasn’t easy. But the pain of not knowing why she struggled to read has made her more understanding and empathetic towards other people.

As Fahima says, “Empathy is the fruit of struggle.”

Fahima’s story reminds us that even when we’re faced with obstacles, we must believe in ourselves and in the new paths that are possible. It’s admirable to push ourselves, but we also must accept and nurture our minds right here, right now. This is how we can root in the present like Fahima’s favorite tree, stretching up toward the bright, blue sky.