Egyptian Teen Inspires While Achieving Goals
By EMILY GUEVARA
Hardly a minute goes by without a smile or laugh from 18-year-old Somaia Mahmoud. Although her light-brown eyes don't work, there is an openness in her face and spirit that invites people in.
"Somaia never meets a stranger. ... I really admire that about her," said
Kathy Melton, 60, who along with her husband, Claude, served as a host family for the Egyptian exchange student. "She came into that school smiling and saying hello to everyone. She had a couple of issues in one class, but otherwise, the kids at her school they have come up to me at church (and said,) 'She will never know what an inspiration she was for us.' They loved her there."
Blind since the age of 10 and visually impaired since birth, Somaia embraces life and learning fully.
It is in part this hunger for knowledge that brought her to the United States. Although she has attended the El-Nour School for Blind Girls in Alexandria, Egypt, since she was 4, Somaia has had little exposure to technology that can help her become more independent.
Through AFS Egypt and the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program, she was able to come to this country where she attended Eustace High School for one year and participated in several additional programs to learn how to better live without sight.
Born visually impaired, Somaia could see light, shadows and colors for the first part of her life. But by the time she turned 10, glaucoma had damaged the optic nerves in her eyes, and she lost sight in both of them.
She said her parents always encouraged her to learn as much as she could, especially her mother.
"My mom was my guide," she said. "If I wanted to learn in some place, she never refused."
Her mother served as an advocate of sorts in her life going to the hospitals and schools to see how she could be helped.
At 4, Somaia started attending the El-Nour School for Blind Girls because blind children cannot go to regular public schools with the rest of the students in Egypt.
The school was in Alexandria. However, her family lived on the outskirts of the city. So Somaia lived at the school during the week and went home to her family on the weekends.
There she learned Arabic, English, religion, history, math and the sciences. She also took part in drama, choir and music. She enjoys playing the accordion, singing and poetry. But one thing she didn't learn a lot about was technology, and that was something she greatly wanted.
"I wanted to learn anything that (could) help me to be more independent" such as technology, mobility, and cooking, among other things, she said.
She believed that in coming to the United States she could do just that improve her English and gain knowledge about technology and other things that could help her in her life.
She said at her school in Egypt, all the meals are served to the students. She asked about having the students be more a part of the process, but some people rebuffed the idea.
"I remember one of the responses (was), 'Have you ever made a cup of tea for yourself?'" she said. "I was like, 'Did you give me a chance to do that?'"
Coming to america
In August, she arrived in the U.S., participating first in an orientation in Washington, D.C., with other students in her program before coming to East Texas.
She arrived at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport with other exchange students coming to the area.
Mrs. Melton, said she and Somaia hit it off immediately. Like Somaia, Mrs. Melton is blind and has been her entire life.
Although she and her husband had never had an exchange student before, she believed that she could be of help to Somaia because she had gone through the public school system as a blind student, and although it was many years ago, she knew the ropes.
"I am so happy that we did," Mrs. Melton said of their decision to have her. "She's like my daughter. I don't know what I'm going to do without her. We had a wonderful time."
Somaia said her host mother helped her a lot with using the computer and learning contracted Braille, a form that uses abbreviations and contractions. She also helped Somaia understand notes and lectures early on before her English got better.
During her stay, Somaia has expanded her knowledge and abilities in many areas. At Eustace High School, she took a full load of classes including English as a second language, English 2, drama, U.S. history, biology and a computer class.
She has learned to use a screen reader, cook some foods, use Facebook and Skype, use a cane for walking, read contracted Braille and use email, among other tasks.
Apart from her academic work, she visited Oregon with Mobility International USA where she participated in a challenge course and learned about how to communicate and work together with other people who have disabilities.
She also spent a week at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin.
In Tyler, she job shadowed at Horizon Industries and spent several weeks at the East Texas Lighthouse for the Blind learning about adaptive technologies and how to walk with a cane.
When she returns to Egypt, she plans to share the things she has learned about technology and English with her friends there.
She said one of her goals throughout this exchange has been to present a positive image of Muslim people just as if a Christian went to her country they likely would want to present a positive picture of their religion.
She said the students at her high school treated her very well and asked questions about her religion, country and life. She is believed to be the first blind exchange student ever at Eustace High School and said she and the other students learned together how to interact with each other.
As for her future, Somaia said she would like to obtain a scholarship to return to the U.S. and study some more. She said whatever she learns she wants to share with others as she really enjoys teaching.
In Egypt, she wants to build support among blind people to ask the government to let blind students go to regular public schools.
She also is interested in working in the media and possibly as an interpreter. She speaks Arabic, English and some French. She also is learning a few Chinese phrases, she said.
"When I was young, I used to listen to radio and TV and just listen to people when they read their newspaper headlines," she said. "I liked how people try to send (the) message."
She said she likes how journalists can expose problems among residents that the government might not be aware of. She said she also likes the power inherent in storytelling, the way in which journalists characterize a story or put it in their own words. No matter what she ends up doing, she said she just wants to be learning.
Somaia said she never got mad about being blind, but sometimes she was hurt by people's comments. However, she doesn't view the absence of sight as devastating in her life.
"I always was thinking about ... 'What's in me that makes me different?'" she said. "What makes me different? And I always had hope that God maybe he took my vision, but he gave me something different so I can adapt (in) my life ...
"It's enough for me to go to school and learn. It's enough for me to have since I can touch and feel what's around me so I can I know what is that, God gave me different, like a lot of talents. I feel like I'm special even though I don't have my vision. It's enough for me to think. It's enough for me to have a brain or mind to think with."