“Growing up as a young Somali Muslim girl, from a war-torn country, playing sports was not a possibility.”
In 2014, when 18-year-old Rihana Ibrahim, a Somali refugee, arrived in Tucson, Arizona, she recalls: “I was happy, but scared. Nobody was around.”
For Rihana, the fear was well placed. Affected with polio as a child, she lost mobility in her lower limbs, sometimes dragging herself on the ground, or using old wooden crutches as a means of a carriage. Despite not speaking English and having faced several obstacles in her short life, she knew the United States was where she wanted to call home. “I really wanted a better life in the U.S.A,” Rihana says.
In her first week in the U.S., fate struck when Rihana met Mia Hansen, a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Mia took Rihana under her wing immediately, recalling the first time she met her: “When Rihana came into the room, I saw her in a really bad wheelchair for someone [permanently disabled]…and it was very obvious she needed a hand.”
Mia, whose brother is a quadriplegic and served on the board of directors for Mobility International USA (MIUSA), wanted to help Rihana gain back confidence and strength. Mia and her brother found Rihana a new wheelchair, one that she could play sports in. And before Rihana knew it she began playing on the University of Arizona’s wheelchair basketball team. Growing up as a young Somali Muslim girl, from a war-torn country, playing sports was not a possibility.
“Women in Somalia don’t play sports. Only men play soccer,” Rihana says.
Between the ages of 5 and 18, Rihana’s life was not one filled with much hope. She lost her parents to violence at just 5 years old, and while a woman took her in afterwards, the woman passed away when Rihana was 12. Immediately the deceased woman’s son gave Rihana an ultimatum: marry him or get kicked out.
When Rihana said no to his marriage demand, he beat her over the head, saying she had no future as a disabled girl in Somalia. Undeterred, Rihana stood her ground because she believed in her future: “I wouldn’t marry him because I wanted to be someone,” she says.
Determined to escape the devastated country of Somalia, she called on the help of women in her community, and made a three-month trek to the Aw-barre refugee camp, just outside of Jijiga, Ethiopia.
Even as a young, single girl with a disability, it still took over two years for her to receive official refugee status. “They will give you a refugee paper but no ID card identifying you as a refugee,” Rihana says. “[The card could get you] oil and rice. People who had money would get their cards and would bribe their way.”
She found safety in the refugee camp, but continued to get sick and weaker due to malnutrition. Then came the advances within the camp and Rihana found a community of women who protected her, “There were men in the camp who wanted to marry me, but I still said no, and I stayed with the women,” she says.
At the end of 2012, officers from the U.S. State Department at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) handed her a letter that said she could come to the U.S.
“When I heard I was coming to States I was very happy and many people [in the camp] cried because they were happy for me,” Rihana recalls.
After she received the news she would find refuge in the U.S., it would still take over a year for her to receive clearance, which only highlights the vetting process refugees go through to find solace here.
For Rihana, her new life in the U.S. presented new challenges, like learning to read and write in English. But her mentor, Mia, felt strongly that sports would help Rihana integrate better, give her a sense of freedom and happiness she had not experienced before.
“I have seen the biggest smile and laughter from her when she is playing basketball,” Mia says.
Basketball did not come easy at first, though, as Rihana struggled to learn how to push the wheelchair, throw the ball, and shoot. Even more demanding was trying to understand the coach’s instructions, “At first coach was yelling and I didn’t know why,” Rihana remembers.
To provide encouragement, Mia began attending practices and brought in another Somali refugee, who helped translate the coach’s directions for Rihana.
According to Mia, “At first she didn’t understand why she had to push the wheelchair so hard during practice, and kept asking the coach, ‘Why?’ There was a bit of a standoff there, because she came from a place of having to save every bit of energy in order to survive. But then, we talked to a translator about that, and he told her that she didn’t have to be afraid because she has food to eat now, and told her that her body would grow if she pushed herself.”
Mia helped Rihana find an apartment near the University of Arizona campus so she could attend practice easily. “She would go to practice at 6 a.m. every morning, five days a week, and would push herself [in the wheelchair] there,” Mia says.
While playing on the basketball team proved to have benefits for Rihana, her teammates gained a new perspective, too. According to Mia, “She won the respect of her teammates because she was fearless, and once they learned her story, their jaws were dropping. It kind of made them feel like, ‘Maybe my troubles aren’t quite as bad.’”
Now, at 21 years old, Rihana has played basketball for almost three years, and has ventured into trying other sports like tennis and lacrosse.
Rihana loves basketball. “I have made a lot of friends on the team,” she says.
Now, she is learning English, and hopes to enroll in community college in the future. She also found a new passion: makeup. Her face is a palette to express herself, and she dreams of being the first Muslim woman in a wheelchair to become a model.
Over the last three years in the U.S., she credits the resolve she has acquired through sport and through the help of Mia. In the process, it has helped Rihana find her voice.
“I would like to do social work one day,” Rihana says. “My dream is to share my story. I want to speak in front of the United Nations like Malala Yousafzai about women who have dreams, who are strong, and [so women know] they can come true. I would like women to know they can have freedom.”