“I want to deliver a message” twenty-year-old student Zahraa says with conviction, “I want to prove to myself that I’m strong.” These are the words spoken by an incredible young woman, given the opportunity by Palma College to study higher education and to share her story with the world. The owner of Palma College was so impressed that, after meeting Zahraa she immediately offered her a scholarship, recognising that there was more to her than met the eye.
In 2000, when Zahraa was born in Iraq, army tanks would pass by her balcony like cars, to her, war felt normal. However, in 2004 when the bombings got closer, her family decided to move to Yemen. Zahraa’s father was already based there for work, which meant her family quickly settled into a comfortable life. Although, perhaps “too comfortably” as Zahraa puts it, realising now how she used to obsess over the small things in life. “It was all about clothes, jewellery and money. My parents had good jobs, so we could have whatever we wanted.”
However, it was a life that quickly fell apart when war broke out again. Then what mattered more than anything was simply staying alive. Zahraa recalls running from her home and at no point stopping to think about her possessions. She lightly pulls at the material of her shirt, “when you’re in that situation, the only thing you think about is staying alive, nothing else.” Clothes and material wealth seem no longer important. It is the poignant moments like these, that Zahraa works hard in highlighting in her talks at schools.
Since she arrived legally to Spain three years ago, Zahraas talks have been welcomed across Mallorca, by speaking about her experiences she aims to challenge what people think of refugees. She is a natural public speaker, fluent in English, Spanish and Arabic, and passionate about telling the truth, which doesn’t always make for easy listening. For example, describing the moment she watched her mother being thrown into a boat like “she wasn’t a person”, or when she translated for a woman at a refugee camp in Greece who was being raped by her smuggler. All of these dark moments have made Zahraa determined to travel the world and be a voice for those who don’t have one.
As well as giving talks, Zahraa has also exhibited her artwork in Barcelona by the non-profit organisation NoBorders Refugees. It was only when Zahraa started at Palma College, where an art teacher looked over some of her doodles, that she was encouraged to pursue art at A-Level. Since then art has become Zahraa’s salvation, giving her space to express complex themes including freedom, feminism and identity. Her use of dark colours reflect some of her most haunting memories – something the staff and students at Palma College have helped Zahraa with. “My teachers are my family here, they have been…” She takes a deep breath, her lip trembling. “I don’t know how I’m ever going to pay them back. I’ve had so much support.”
Zahraa is on target to finish her A-Levels this summer and hopes to continue her education at university, studying International Relations. The natural next step for a young woman with so much potential to change the world, through her creativity, resilience and talent for public speaking.
If you would like to help Zahraa realise her dream, please contact Jillian Witkamp at Palma College on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how you can help.
Photos by Sara Savage