When Hooyo (“Mother” in Somali) picked me up from school in our Ethiopian refugee camp, we’d walk the long way home so people wouldn’t know that I went to school. Girls were expected to cook, clean and be housewives. School was for boys.
There were barely any girls in my class. The classroom was big, full of students and books. The students were noisy as they practiced their language. It smelled like old books and dust, and it was hot. I remember the sounds of the rain hitting the roof of the building. Being there made me happy.
Not only did Hooyo encourage my education, but she and my aunt would sit with me under an isolated tree and ask me what I learned. “Aqoon la’aan waa iftiin la’aan,” (“Without knowledge, there is no light.”), she would say. So, in addition to being a student, I was also a teacher.
I was around 6 when I started teaching my mom and my aunt how to read and write. They wrote the Somali alphabet that I showed them in their old dirty notebooks. I taught them for about six years.
Sometimes, we would talk about what it would be like if we told people I was in school. I wondered how they would react.
I’m guessing that few of the camp people have had the inspiration that I got from my mom to be the first in my family to go to college. She has taught me the importance of grades, getting involved in school and community, sports and volunteering as a translator. I believe those values will translate into a career where I can help young women.
My parents were born in Somalia and they left their homeland because of the civil war. They went to Ethiopia to escape. They met in Dhagaxbuur, a small town in Ethiopia. They had 12 children but eight died young because of starvation and lack of healthcare in the refugee camp where they lived. Only four of us survived.
When I was 12, in June 2012, we moved to the United States. We arrived in New York. It felt like another world. The way people dressed, the food and buildings amazed me.
The first place we lived was Dallas, for about six months. Starting school there gave me a mixture of feelings: Happiness to be in school again, fear of how I would be received and, quickly, knowledge that I was different.
I didn’t know any English and everyone else did. I was the only Muslim girl in the entire school who wore a hijab, and it used to draw people’s attention. People would have curious questions. For example: “Are you bald?” “Isn’t it hot?” “Why are you wearing it?”
In America, education is viewed differently from the camp in Ethiopia. In the United States, girls have equal opportunities in education. Nobody asks why we are going to school.
Once here, Hooyo told me to find what I’m passionate about and, when I find it, don’t give it up. Forget the past as you struggle to find the education that you were willing to work toward. Her words inspired me to be strong, independent, hard-working and active, doing what it takes to be a hero and legend for those who are looking up to me.
At Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, I’m involved in varsity girls’ soccer, track, badminton, the Key Club community organization and a committee for assembly programs and in welcoming new students.
My biggest dream is to go to college. I want to make my Hooyo proud for all her sacrifices that made me who I am and what I stand for today. I will always keep my head up and look forward, after all of her hard work for me and for helping give me education when I was younger.
I’m very passionate about helping people, especially girls. One of my goals is to study political science and work for the government. After what I experienced in learning, I need to help those who are interested in being educated.
My mother used to remind me about how she didn’t get an education when she was my age. Her support and my progress continue to inspire me. “Use your voice,” she said. “Your voice is your power.”
I am using my voice. And I have promised myself I’ll transform young girls’ lives from darkness to brightness, changing the world one girl at a time.