Writer: Ferozah Kothdiwala
When Dr Fatima Hafeji and I met for our interview, one of the first things she said to me was that her story is truly “inspirational”. In my opinion, Dr Fatima surpassed “inspirational” and should have added “amazingly enthralling” as an additional description to her life story. Her humble, calm demeanor belies the remarkable strength of character and endurance of a person far beyond her age. Educated at St Mary’s Primary School and then, at the now non-existent, Louis Lynch Secondary, Dr Fatima admits to being disappointed that she did not make it to one of the “top secondary schools”. This, however, did not deter this focused young lady and she went about creating her legacy which took her from this current school to The Barbados Community College, Queens College and finally to the University of West Indies, St Augustine in Trinidad where she completed her MBBS and gained her qualifications as a General Practitioner in Medicine. She recalls with a smile on her face, of being at school when she was 7 years old and her class teacher was asking all the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Her experience growing up within the Muslim Gujarati Community was always one of where females became housewives. Her mother was a housewife and all the females she knew were housewives. Fatima knew no other life for Muslim Gujarati females. Her teacher became so perturbed when she discovered that she wanted to be “nothing but a housewife" that she called in her father, and proceeded to inform him that this was not an acceptable career choice for the young Fatima. She remembers fondly, that her father hugged her lovingly and laughed saying with confidence that his daughter could be whatever she wanted to be and she would one day be a doctor.These words sealed Fatima’s fate. The young child, who was often called a “dreamer” by her friends set out on her quest to make her father proud and against all the odds that she faced and was to face focused on achieving this dream. Her dream would at times falter and stumble, as she thought she was not “smart enough” and was plagued with doubts in her ability to succeed. Her father would have none of this negative thinking and would encourage her to think positively and to believe and have faith in herself. At times, he was her harshest critic, especially on occasions when she brought home grades that were not up to par. Her mother’s softness would then take over and convince her she was definitely “good enough” and would make it through. The fifth of eleven girls, Dr Fatima, believes the old adage that it takes ‘a village to raise a child’, played an instrumental role in her success story. She attributes her remaining focused on her path to progress to persons like Mr and Mrs Tyrone King, who stood by her and her family and guided her in her choices. She says the influence of Br Sabir Nakhuda, Dr Shaffie Nadgee and Mohamed (Master Cha Cha) Bulbulia was immeasurable along with her neighbours in Rock Dundo; an area her family moved to after living in Fontabelle for many years. A lover of cricket, Dr Fatima spent much of her childhood playing the sport, going to the beach and satisfying her grandmother’s obsession for dough nuts and tamarinds which she often sent Fatima and her sisters to pick on hot Summer days. Fatima’s family was not financially well off and would often only have their home, the beach and the neighbourhood as their recreational haunting ground while other girls of their age would be going to town to shop and attending other events. Fatima knew her parents could not afford these luxuries and would often make excuses for not being able to go as well. Her father came to Barbados at 30 years of age and toiled as a salesman on foot and within six months purchased his first vehicle. Subsequently, her father brought over her mother, four siblings and grandmother from India. Growing up in a large family, though peculiar to many of her friends at school, who only had one or two siblings, meant that Fatima and her sisters did not need many friends as they had each other. They built a close bond amongst themselves, fueled by their father’s devotion and motivation to propel his daughters to never hold a grudge, be generous and always choose good over bad. Along with their mother’s contentment with life and the belief that material things do not make you happy, Fatima developed a strong sense of commitment and responsibility to her family and especially her younger sisters. She recognizes the support of her siblings who carried the burden of her chores and responsibilities at home so that she could study for exams and complete assignments on time. She notes with happiness that her younger siblings too, were allowed the opportunity to study. The shy young Fatima had a few close friends with whom she spent her leisure time. She fondly remembers going to the beach and on drives with “good friends” such as Alex, Tsahay and Maria. Her parents sheltered her and her sisters, preferring friends to come over rather than they go out. This sheltered protection could not save her from the hurtful comments of other children who ridiculed her dreams of becoming a doctor nor could it save from the “advice” of some adults who told her that it was immensely difficult to succeed at becoming a doctor, that her parents could not possibly afford to fund her studies and there was no shame in returning home when she failed! What Fatima found most disconcerting was some seemingly concerned persons telling her parents she would “run away from home” and accusing her of having “a man” when they saw her in the vehicle of her 60-year old neighbour who often dropped her off to school. She often wondered if they thought her aspirations were all “a joke” and if they believed she was as “dumb” as some of her friends said she was! These and other similar comments did not deter Fatima. Instead, it fed her determination, increased her focus and just like how she did during her teenage years, Fatima searched and found a solution to every problem. She knew with a deep conviction that the challenges and obstacles she faced were only a test and it would last only for a time. With tenacity, she focused on her goal and made the best of each situation, continued to pray, have faith in Allah and say her Surah Yaseen daily. She knew things would get better and she would succeed - and indeed she did! Today, Dr Fatima Hafeji can boast of working at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Ladymeade’s HIV Clinic and having her very own private practice. Though she has lost the support and care of her beloved father and her biggest supporter, Fatima values the advice of persons like Nurse Gumbs and Nurse Forde as she continues along her path of achievement. Dr Fatima is looking forward to furthering her studies and gaining her Masters. She encourages Muslims to see themselves as Barbadians and find ways and means of giving back and supporting the community we live in. She wants to see Muslims playing a bigger role in society, contributing towards causes and supporting projects like breakfast programmes for school children, care of the elderly and other ventures such as donating a wheelchair, benches or water for those in need. She believes the biggest challenge we face as a Barbadian society is drug abuse and violence amongst young people. She encourages us to become our brothers’ keepers and look to see what we can do to improve the situation in our communities rather than looking to the Government to provide solutions. Amongst the Muslim Community, she would like to see more attention and care give to the issue of mental health. She urges Muslims to recognise it as a real issue which has to be dealt with rather than as a result of some other supernatural force (eg jinns etc). Dr Fatima is pleased with the positive changes she is seeing amongst the Muslim Community and is especially happy with the initiatives the Barbados Association of Muslim Ladies (BAML) is making. She believes that the establishment of the Al Falah School has had a positive impact on our Community. Dr Hafeji has faced many obstacles and challenges along her path to achieving her goal. Her advice to those who may be in similar circumstances is that what you may be working towards may not come at once but to never give up. To listen to and accept the guidance of those you trust, work hard (as hard work makes you stronger), be open to new ideas, think long term, be respectful and mindful and recognise that life is a learning process. A process which she has learnt, even now, having achieved her dream, that sometimes maturity comes later in life and though Almighty Allah may take away what is most beloved to you, like how He took her father on that fateful day of 20th February 2012, you can still continue to believe in yourself and when things get tough and depressing, you can do like she does, imagine her father is there beside her holding her, hugging her and comforting her with the words that as long as you stay focused and believe in God and yourself the sun will always rise bringing with it all the sunshine and glory of the dawning of a better day!