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Saara Hirsi: A ‘can do’ attitude
Photos and Story by James Hill
When Somali refugee Saara Hirsi, who is legally blind, came to the United States by herself to explore the possibility of restoring her eyesight she was told by a doctor that she would never regain her sight and had to face the fact she wouldn’t be able to do much with her life. Even, her own parents and the Somalian community didn’t think she should leave home due to her blindness.
That was in 2002. Today, after completing ESL classes, Hirsi is finishing her GED at the Cascade Campus with the hope of going on to college and getting a degree in communications. She also serves as an interpreter for the Hillsboro School District to help with translation between the district and local African diaspora families.
Through PCC’s service learning program, she has helped TriMet develop their stop announcements to better suit people who are blind; volunteered at Lutheran Family Services to help African refugee women understand how to read bus tickets and best navigate the city; and she was a representative at the Oregon Commission for the Blind’s conference in Eugene.
“It was hard when a doctor said I would never see again,” Hirsi said. “I wanted to take a chance. I went to the Oregon Commission for the Blind and they gave me the confidence to live productively with the condition. It was like I was born again and they taught me to do things myself like take public transportation or crossing the street. The commission said that they would get me an apartment and teach me how to be independent. My community was telling me I couldn’t do this but I grew tired of the negative comments. So I just did it.”
It’s not like Hirsi doesn’t know how to overcome adversity. She grew up in war-torn Somalia before her family escaped to Kenya where they lived in a refugee camp. It was in Somali, just before relocating to Kenya, that she began to lose her eyesight. She eventually came to the United States to find a cure but was told her condition is genetic and nothing could be done. It was then, too, that she was told she wouldn’t be able to be productive.
“They told me that I couldn’t do anything without my eyesight,” she remembered. “For 20 years I’ve been told I couldn’t. But I found out I can do things.”
Hirsi became further connected to the community through PCC. She credits Judy Voth, ABE and GED instructor, with helping her to gain the proper English skills. And it was the college’s service learning program where she found out about an opportunity to help TriMet’s Ride Connection break down hidden barriers for blind passengers and for people of other cultures who may not understand how to commute in the city.
“Some driver’s don’t talk and I can’t tell if this is my stop,” Hirsi explains. “I had to ask the driver if this was my stop. I made Ride Connection aware that that was a problem. Ride Connection was great because it also taught me to speak up.”
She also was invited to the commission’s conference in Eugene thanks to a grant from Nike. The conference featured women from South America, Africa, Australia and the Middle East that had some form of disability. Hirsi said she learned about domestic violence issues, took skills workshops and connected with people with all kinds of disabilities.
“I never thought I’d learn so much,” Hirsi said with a smile. “We talked with each other and as a result I learned how to better my situation. To be blind is one thing but to do something with it is another. For example, I’m more comfortable in talking with people if I need something.”
But Hirsi is also giving. In Hillsboro, she’ll ride TriMet to the home of families to help translate for school officials or for social workers. She not only translates but also interprets cultural aspects to overcome differences of understanding between the two sides.
“Everything is new for these people,” Hirsi explained. “It’s a lot of fun because I like helping them.”
Hirsi plans to go on to college and get her degree. She eventually would like to travel all over the world and move back to Kenya where her parents still live. She’d like to help others discover the benefits of an education and overcome their own barriers.
“I feel good,” she said of her life. “It’s a challenge every day but it is good to see that I’m doing more and trying harder. The exciting part is that I know I can do more. You never know what you can achieve if you try harder.”