Final Musing on Edmund Rice Week: Visit by Ibrahim Halawa
The above title is taken from the extraordinary ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor E Frankl-it connects so much with Ibrahim’s story I can’t stop thinking about it as he speaks to us and I am to learn it is amongst the books that have made a significant impact on his journey and his survival-but I digress and must try to start at the beginning…..
Ibrahim is here, he has walked through our very own red door- it’s hard to believe. At 17 years of age Ibrahim Halawa was arrested and imprisoned in Egypt where he spent more than 4 years-1,497 days after being arrested on September 18th 2017 he is acquitted of all charges and awaits his release and return home to Ireland.
It is hard to fathom that Ibrahim has been a free man for not much more than 6 months. He is composed, eloquent and seems unbelievingly well-adjusted. But Ibrahim himself recognises there are parts of his experiences he has not yet touched or processed. His family have not forced him to tell them all-they respect he needs his privacy. Above all I think he needs time-time to make up for all that has been stolen from him.
When he starts to tell his story everything you have read in the newspapers, online or seen on your television pales insignificantly. You look in wonder at a real flesh and blood man-someone who grew from boy to man in almost unimaginable conditions and circumstances and it is hard to imagine that he is even alive-let alone that he is able to tell his story with wit, good humour and with positive life-affirming messages throughout. But of course his story takes you to the very edge of what you feel anyone could endure and beyond-you swallow a series of lumps that keep forming in your throat. And as someone working with children and young people there are poignant and heart-breaking reminders of his lost boyhood. My stomach rises to meet my throat when Ibrahim states-‘After my Leaving Cert I was going to go to Ibiza but I went to Egypt instead’ My own ‘Leaving Cert’ holiday springs to mind where the greatest danger I faced was falling out with one of my friends or running out of money for nights spent out dancing.
What the trolls, the racists, those who wear their islamophobia like a badge of honour lack the humanity to recognise is that Ibrahim in spite of his Egyptian heritage was an Irish boy who had grown up in Irish culture.He found himself in an unfamiliar and terrifying world where he stood little to no chance against the arbitrary regime of cruelty.
As the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, and the months to years in spite of the relentless work of his family in Ireland to have him released Ibrahim learned that all he could control were his own thoughts, behaviour and ability to maintain hope. I longed to know what it was about Ibrahim that allowed him to maintain hope when others could not. Ibrahim shares the desire he had at many times to end it all but he didn’t and now more than 4 years later when asked if he would take it back if he could he states that he would not because the experience has been a part of his life. Ibrahim generously shares with us some of the wisdom he has gathered about life- yes somehow we find he has succeeded in taking the best from the very worst of situations. Some of the lessons he shares:
– ‘I decided I needed to fight in myself for myself’
– ‘All we needed was one person to have hope’
– ‘Some hardships bring out beautiful things you didn’t know were in you’
– ‘Never give up’
-‘Find the things you beautifully succeed at’
Ibrahim speaks at the Cork Life Centre to a room of adults and young people. He directs much of his advice and dialogue to our young people. It is more than clear that he believes based on his own experiences that young people can achieve anything they set their mind to. He tells the young people he hated reading and writing and that he complained about ‘The Great Gatsby’ like any other Leaving Cert student. But during his incarceration he discovered reading and writing-he read more than 1,000 books. He recommends that everyone write and communicates that you don’t have to be a great writer to do so, just do it. I find myself hoping that Ibrahim keeps writing as he has a story to tell and wisdom to share that he has paid a massive price for that must never be lost. Ibrahim promotes the power of education-he is incredibly excited to have sat his first exam in 5 years yesterday-he feels very privileged to have done so.
Following Ibrahim’s talk he joins us to launch the art exhibition of one of our very talented former students. He admires the art and he chats to some of our students-I overhear them talking about what football teams they support and MMA and I am baffled at how Ibrahim can switch from telling his story to speaking about such mundane things.
But on reflection it makes complete sense-Ibrahim revels in what I lack the perspective to see is much more than the mundane and every-day. Ibrahim wears his freedom like a celebratory garland, holds it close like the precious possession that it is. What stays with me long after we have returned Ibrahim to the train station is a statement he made in relation to finding he is able to open doors and walk through them-he literally jumps and fist pumps with joy as he speaks about it.
He speaks about more than 4 years where ‘ I wished I could walk through a door I wanted to open’
And this is so sad and so beautiful I hope I never forget it.