The late afternoon sun glints behind her, enveloping her face in an ethereal glow. Her teeth flash in a smile as she chatters about her first Halloween costume, her first taste of Taco Bell, her first experience with ankle-deep snow.
Such simple milestones come and go in the lives of most; enjoyed in one moment and then slip away in the next.
But for Fardoos Muhamed, these events are cherished.
Fardoos was born in Somalia, but due to the crumbling stability of the country and the civil war raging between tribes, she and her family relocated to nearby Yemen when she was just 6 years old.
Although the move proved safer, as she grew, she still encountered struggles in many forms.
“Girls just like me are married and have children before they’re 15 years old,” Fardoos said, her demeanor solemn at the thought. Most girls do not continue their education past high school; “there is no point,” Fardoos explains. As a woman, you are usually viewed as nothing more than a wife and a mother.
In fact, according to a 2012 Human Rights Watch study, 52% of girls in Yemen are married before the age of 18 and only 45% of girls and women are literate, one of the lowest percentages in the world.
But Fardoos was destined for a different kind of life. Her parents, especially her mother, were determined that their oldest child would not be just another statistic in the battle against women’s rights.
“My mother pushed and encouraged me to stay in school,” said Fardoos, who was the most academically driven one out of her siblings, attending a separate private school in order to get the most out of a failing education system.
And still her parents wanted more than they would get in Yemen, so 5 years ago they left the country with the help of UNHCR. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is a UN based organization that protects the rights of refugees and strives to seek a safe location for them.
That safe location was Winooski, Vt.
The drastic move proved extremely difficult for Fardoos and her family.
“We hated the food. Even if we made our own meals with familiar recipes, nothing tasted the same,” remembers Fardoos. “A pizza here was the same shape as the pizza in Yemen. It looked like the same pizza, smelled like the same pizza and yet we could hardly stand to eat it.”
But the food was not the only adjustment; many family members stayed behind, in both Yemen and Somalia, feeling too connected with their homeland to leave, no matter the turmoil.
As Fardoos slowly adapted her to new surroundings, she found comfort in going to school.
“I caught on with the language so fast. One day I was just speaking, and I didn’t even notice. My teacher had to point out that I had just spoken perfect English.” This was a huge moment of pride for Fardoos, who has always loved school.
As the culture shock began to fade, Fardoos became more comfortable in Vermont. But she still held on to her Muslim traditions and religious views. She stopped wearing her burqa, a typical garment worn by women to cover their bodies and faces. But her cultural lifestyle could not allow for a complete transition, so Fardoos chose to wear a less conservative head scarf known as a hijab.
“My hijab is a part of me,” Fardoos explains, touching the soft brown fabric that swaddles her hair. “It’s engraved in who I am, and it’s a choice I make every day.” Her parents were supportive of the change, and open to the idea of not wearing any traditional clothing. But Fardoos likes the way it feels and looks. Not to mention she has dozens of hijabs, all in different colors, patterns and textures, and switches her style up depending on her mood.
Although Fradoos adores her clothing choices, it may be one of the first things you notice about her walking through campus.
“People used to stare at me..well, I guess they still do,” she said lightheartedly. “At first, it used to really piss me off!” she said, smashing her fists down playfully. “Now, I just laugh when I get those weird looks.”
Fardoos explains that she didn’t feel different in her new college environment, but the people around her made it obvious that she was. However, she didn’t take it personally., knowing Vermont’s population is not the most diverse.
Castleton as a college, however, is growing in diversity, of all different forms.
Academic Dean Yasmine Ziesler is part of that growth, supporting and incorporating more diversity into the Castleton scene. Every aspect of diversity, from various sexual orientation to religious and cultural beliefs, can “benefit everyone on campus,” said Ziesler.
“Your learning is enriched when you embrace different ideas and ways of life,” she said. Ziesler said that the thought of a different culture can cause discomfort and creates boundaries between people and groups. But talking about these boundaries and exploring them with a personal willingness can open a world of new experiences and possibilities.
“Traveling is a good way of exploring new cultures,” she said. “So is asking questions and being brave enough to learn more. If you offend someone, you apologize, gain knowledge and move on as a better person.”
Professor Luther Brown feels strongly that Fardoos has brought new light to our college atmosphere.
“She has brought so much to the classroom contexts by manifesting immediate aspects of her culture and other traditions. We have all enjoyed learning from her.”
Fardoos believes that sharing information and knowledge is a good way of getting people to understand a culture as a whole or person as an individual.
“People look at me and think I’m forced to dress the way I do. They think I’m forced to turn down a drink or bacon,” Fardoos said, explaining that her Muslim religion forbids the consumption of alcohol or pork. What she wants people to know is that she doesn’t feels suppressed or deprived by her religion, she feels enlightened. And she doesn’t mind questions.
“All of these things that people are assuming are bad, are actually the things that make me happy and make me who I am.”