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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 4: Dreamchild

By ERIN ANDERSSEN
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 13, 2003

Her youngest sister, Shukri, who turned 6 the day before, is proudly toting her new Barbies in a shopping bag. Her brothers, Mohamed and Hamza, have set up around a plastic table in the back yard with two cousins - their father, a banker in the UAE, was the first brother Adam Osman put through school.

Fahima's mother straightens her hijab with an easy smile, and goes hunting for forks. Except during Ramadan, when they try to break the fast together, it is rare that her nine children are all under the same roof.

Though money is always tight, it is a given in the family that everyone will go to university - not college, their father tells them sternly, but a "brand name" education.

On that subject, Fahima's parents, who can read and write only a little English, are of one mind. Zahra has been the sole breadwinner since Adam fell ill and retired from his valet job; she keeps the house and works nights making humidifiers on the Emerson factory assembly line. Flanked warmly by her daughters in the kitchen, she describes what she wishes for her children: "Just work hard and have a good life."

Hodan, the second oldest, laughs. "Notice the emphasis on hard work. There is no room for laziness."

The children have complied: Hodan, 23, graduates this year from York University and plans to get her MBA. Hibo, 22, is taking statistics. Mohamed, the eldest boy, is in computer science at Ryerson University. Huwaida, 18, starts next year at York; she wants to be a teacher.

And then there is Fahima, who came first and set the family bar. Her siblings, who gave her nicknames like Party Crasher and Mood Killer, tease her mercilessly about how she pulled all-nighters studying just to "get into" high school, how she decorated her room in A-pluses for motivation, how she made them watch medical documentaries and World Vision programs.

The conversation goes something like this:

"We'd watch them for hours," Hibo says. "The worst ones were the leprosy shows. I still can't get those out of mind."

"It was to remind us to be more grateful for what we had," Fahima protests.

"She once made me watch an episode of Law and Order and write a report on it," sister Deqa, 13, says.

"To practise writing," Fahima explains.

They all tell of the time Fahima returned home from university having had no food and seven cups of coffee. When her mother saw her quivering hands and head, studying was banned for the rest of the day.

"You wish you could have gotten that punishment," Fahima shrugs.

She is used to the ribbing. "You see my house," she says later. "Everyone's partying. I had to put those A's in front of me, to say, `This is my focus.' "

It has been that way since she was six years old, still living in the UAE, and announced to her mom she wanted to be a doctor. "God willing," her mother answered, "you will be."

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