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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 4: Dreamchild

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 13, 2003

But like other children of immigrants, Fahima and her siblings now have an added motivation. They are the so-called second generation - who account for one in five Canadians in their 20s and who, despite lower family incomes, language barriers and less-educated parents, are outpacing their more settled Canadians peers in the race for higher education.

According to the 2001 census, members of visible minorities in their 20s born in Canada but with parents from other countries were almost twice as likely to have a university degree as third-generation-plus white Canadians. Even those who arrived in the country young had higher levels of school attendance, and a higher presence in high-skilled occupations.

They get an extra push from their working-class parents, who do not want their sacrifices to be wasted. "It's not an accident that we are here," Hodan says. "We have a prophecy to fulfill."

The Osmans arrived with some advantages: They were not burdened with the first-hand trauma of war, and they had learned some English in school, which they perfected watching soap operas and The Simpsons. But there was little money. Fahima took a paper route at 11 to help with the bills, and when they got jobs as teenagers, the older children helped cover the cost of clothes and school trips for the youngest.

At home, they had to tutor each other, and at school, they had to be their own advocates, translating for their mother at parent-teacher meetings (which, Hodan observes, had certain advantages).

But Fahima and her siblings all say they felt diminished by a school system that too easily slotted black kids into lower-level courses; this, they say, is the subtle form of racism they have experienced in Canada.

"You think, okay, people don't expect much of me," Hodan says. "I am going to use that to my advantage."

Fahima cannot name a single high-school teacher who inspired her toward medicine, but she does remember a Grade 10 biology teacher announcing to the class how impossible it was to become a doctor: "Do you think I'd be here if I'd made it?"

She also remembers the guidance counsellor who looked at her low mark in calculus and refused to let her take the course over, suggesting that she was setting her goals too high.

Fahima was one of only two black students taking university-track courses, keeping her marks up while working part-time at a Hallmark card store and helping out at home. She stopped saying at school that she wanted to be a doctor, and Ms. Farah, who first met Fahima at 17, remembers her unhappiness.

She had looked within her community for doctors who could advise her and found none. "She was losing her confidence," she says. "She is a genuinely kind person, but she bruises easily. She needed encouragement and she wasn't getting it in school."

But her family pushed her forward, along with close high-school friends such as Sunita Chowmik, 22, another second-generation Canadian, who is now a teacher. After graduation, the two went together to York, where Fahima could always be found in her favourite spot, among the stacks near the second-floor balcony of the university library.

She made a practice of parking in the most expensive lot on campus to force herself to study past 11:30 p.m., when the attendant left and she wouldn't have to pay.

Her life, except for chatting in coffee shops or going to the movies (she loves goofy comedies like Dumb and Dumber), was all about studying.

"If I really wanted to pull an all-nighter," Ms. Chowmik says, "I'd stay with her."

That night, after the Sunday dinner at the Osmans, Fahima's brother Mohamed sends an e-mail. He is worried, he writes, that in all the funny stories, the truth did not get out - that Fahima has also been the generous big sister who helped mediate between the parents, who helped all the siblings with homework and gave them a model to follow. "I wanted," he says, "to do what she did."

In the summer before she graduated from York, Fahima went back to Somalia, and had her eyes opened. She was already planning to apply to medical school, but her backup plan was to work for an aid agency. She talked her way into an unpaid internship, split between Save the Children and CARE International. It was not a perfect experience: Looking back, she says, she spent too much time in meetings, and too little time on the ground with people.

But not even her endless viewing of World Vision programming had prepared her for what she saw - the life she could have led, had fate gone a different way. She remembers starving children wandering the streets without clothes, and the lone hospital that was missing technical things such as medical supplies and equipment, and human things like curtains between the beds.

5 ROBTv Workopolis