Tell us about how your new picture book relates to your immigration story.
My book Ayeeyo’s Golden Rule is based on the life of a nine-year-old girl named Yasmeen and Yasmeen immigrated to the United States with her mom, her dad, and her younger brother and they are thrown into this society where it doesn't really remind them of home. It's very different. She finds herself being a target of some bullies and they pick on her, on her hijab, they pick on the kind of Somali food she brings to school, they pick on everything about her and make her the target of their bullying. Instead of fighting back, she decides to be kind because in Islam, it really encourages us to be kind and be the better person and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. She tries to be humble and fights back with kindness. “Ayeeyo'' means grandma in Somali. Before Yasmeen left for the United States her grandma told her, “Don't ever forget who you are and where you come from and that you will be humble and kind.” And it kind of reminds me of what my grandma would always tell me. I had just turned six when my family came here to the United States. I am an immigrant and I just feel like I could really relate to Yasmeen as a character.
What informed your decision to become a teacher?
You know what I thought I was going to be many things. I thought I was going to go into forensic science. I thought I was going to be an astronaut. But I always knew I had a passion for two things: writing and educating others in many ways. I always taught for as long as I can remember, whether it be my siblings or whether it be practicing English with my mother. I always found myself teaching and I realized I was kind of good at it. As I grew older it was only natural for me to go into that field. Every year, I feel like I'm reinventing the wheel and getting better. I don't think I'll ever feel like “Okay, I got it!” and I'm okay with that. The pandemic has really been eye-opening, more than anything. A lot of things I've taken for granted, I don't anymore. I cherish the time I spend with my students. And I've come to the realization that whatever we don't learn this year, we will make up for it in the next year. Their social-emotional well-being is the priority right now.
What are some of those challenges that you have encountered as a teacher during COVID-19?
A challenge for me has been engagement and trying to engage the students as much as I can now that we're virtual. My school is strictly virtual right now. It's definitely not the same. The interactions we would have had inside the building are obviously different. When you're in person, I feel like you can explain things better, you can show them. When they work in small groups, they learn a lot from each other, too, and it's kind of hard to do that online. A lot of growth happens when children are collaborating and working together and I’m sure there are ways that I could do it online, but it's just not the same. It's just how it has to be right now. Our safety comes first. In all honesty, I feel like there's good that comes out in every situation and even with COVID, I feel like it really has taught us to slow down and spend less time on our phones and really appreciate those who you have in front of you because we don't know if they're going to be there tomorrow. I'm appreciative for that.
What gives you hope in a time like this?
My children. I have two daughters and they just inspire me every day. I just refuse to believe that there won't be a bigger, better, brighter future for them. I have to stay positive and think positive and that's what keeps me going.
How has COVID-19 impacted your students and their families beyond the teaching experience?
I'm pretty sure it has impacted them in so many ways, probably in ways I don't even know. I know that I do have students whose parents are essential workers, and they are out there, providing and risking their lives to provide for their families through this pandemic. I know that my students can always express to me how good they are and how they wish to come back and be with their friends. I know emotionally they're not too happy. The majority of my students are just really bummed online. And I’m sure a lot of family members probably lost jobs like many people did in the country and worldwide. It's hard times, right now, for many, many business owners and essential workers.
Thinking about your students and their families, is there any message you'd want to share with them?
This is temporary and it will pass. I know it's cliche, but time really does heal everything and we will overcome this and be stronger. We won't let it break us and we will get back to school as soon as possible and I'll be nagging my students before they know it. I'm sure they'll want to go back as soon as we're back. I really miss all of that. I realized that I truly love teaching. I miss everything.
Circling back on your picture books, is there anything that you'd want to write next in terms of an additional story?
Yeah, I’m actually thinking about this a lot, especially during the pandemic since I've had some time to myself. In fact, I’ve always been into sci-fi and writing young-adult fiction. But I don't know. Somehow I got into children's writing, but probably my next book I’ll want to get into the young-adult or teen novel genre.