By PAULETTE PARKER
In 2009, Washtenaw Community College journalism major Saba Ibraheem, her parents and siblings, fled Syria to the United States. Faced with culture shock and a language barrier, Ibraheem’s journey has been further challenged by having Spina Bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord fails to develop properly. It makes her dependent on a wheelchair for mobility.
Despite the rocky path she has navigated, Ibraheem, 21, of Ann Arbor, will graduate from WCC in May with her associate degree in journalism and is looking forward to the next challenge she can overcome.
Her story of determination, in spite of things that some may consider disadvantages, is one of many that fill the halls and classrooms of WCC.
Ibraheem was born in Iraq, a factor that doctors said caused her birth defect.
“They said it’s because of the environment,” Ibraheem said, attributing it to the presence of chemical weapons. None of her siblings have the defect.
“It was difficult for me, especially because my siblings are just, like, normal,” she said. “I felt jealous or like I’m different or something.” Ibraheem spent 13 years in Iraq before moving to Syria, where she lived until coming to the U.S. Her family left Syria after her father, who was working as a photographer for Reuters, began receiving threats.
“He just captured whatever was happening. Then he sent the pictures or video to them,” Ibraheem said. “When some people knew he was doing that, they told him to stop; it was not safe for us to stay there because they were going to kill him anyway, even if he said he’d stop.”
Ibraheem arrived in the U.S. speaking no English. In the fall of 2012, she began taking ESL classes at WCC.
“It was really challenging. I used to use the online translator. The teacher would write it, and I’d read it, and I didn’t even get it,” she said. “I wasted my time with that; I feel like learning English, it’s with time.” Ibraheem originally wanted to study to become a pharmacy technician.
“I thought, well, it would be more difficult for me to do pharmacy because they would have to reach things for me,” she said. “So it’s a lot of accommodation that needs to be done for me.” With her love of reading and news, she decided to pursue journalism.
This decision was met with opposition. Her family expressed their concerns due to journalism’s fast pace and her physical limitations. But she is up for the task, she said.
“They still disagree with me, but I’m still going to take the challenge,” Ibraheem said. “If I fail doing it, at least I tried.” Her limitations have presented her with few challenges in her time at WCC.
“Getting into a classroom is probably a little bit difficult or challenging because somebody has to hold the door for me, or I will have to push myself to get into it,” she said.
“I feel that WCC is really accessible. You can get anywhere in here,” Ibraheem said.
WCC offers assistance to students who do need accommodations on campus in the Learning Support Services department.
“They have to identify as a person with a disability. There’s nowhere in the college where we gather that information until they come to us, so it’s their choice to do that,” said Debra Guerrero, director of Learning Support Services. “If a person can access everything without accommodations that’s even better, because then, as an institution, we’re doing what we should be doing.”
Karly Stanislovaitis, 24, another journalism major from Dexter, has faced a similarly rough road after being diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at birth. She relies heavily on a motorized scooter.
“I’ve used a walker since the age of two or three,” Stanislovaitis said. She started physical and occupational therapy at a young age.
“My parents wanted me to go to public school and be as accessible as I could be,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have gotten the opportunities that I did unless my mom would have pushed for that.” Up until her sophomore year of high school, Stanislovaitis had the assistance of a paraprofessional to help her get through her school day.
“Eventually I got to the point where I was kind of complacent, and I was so used to having someone with me 24/7 that it’s like it was almost like a security blanket,” she said. One day her mom decided to take that security blanket away to build her independence ahead of graduating.
“As I got used to it, it was fine, and I don’t know why I didn’t do that a lot earlier,” Stanislovaitis said. After high school, she went away to study journalism at Grand Valley State University. While there, she struggled with anxiety.
“Some days I literally felt like the world was on top of me, like I couldn’t breathe,” she said. There was cause for concern when the trouble she had always had with organization and remembering things began to affect her education. Stanislovaitis mentioned these difficulties to her doctor.
After testing, she was diagnosed with Hydrocephalus, excess fluid on the brain that can occur at birth. The condition can affect executive reasoning, planning and organizing.
“For me that was a big deal because at the point I was at when I went there, I thought it was all in my head,” she said. “And I think even my mom was becoming so frustrated; we were just stuck in a spot.” With the help of a team at the University of Michigan, Stanislovaitis began using a tablet to help keep herself organized and on-task, a preferable alternative to paper.
She began using a scooter to get around in college, finding it easier than her walker, though she was initially hesitant.
“I remember it was hard for me at first because I was using my walker at that point, like, my whole life,” she said. “Obviously, if people look at someone in a scooter they’re like, oh, she can’t do anything for herself. I’m not that person at all. I’m really independent, and I can do what I can do.”
After three years at GVSU, Stanislovaitis made the decision to move back home with her parents to reduce her stress. She enrolled at WCC, where she could focus on her classes. Here, she has utilized Learning Support Services accommodations, including extended test times, alternative note-taking methods and leniency with transportation issues.
“We assess with, under the law – the Americans with Disabilities Act – it’s called reasonable accommodations. So we look at their request; we look at what we’re able to do as an institution, and then we just set that up,” Guerrero said.
With all the accommodations she has available to her, she still feels some hassles are unavoidable.
“A lot of times it’s the little things I run into,” Stanislovaitis said. This includes the fact that not all bathrooms are barrier-free.
“I feel like I’m pretty lucky because, if I have to, I can get out of my chair and do whatever I need to do, but I also know that there’s people that aren’t able to do that,” she said. “So it’s not just for me, but it’s also about people that face the same or worse challenges than I do. What would they do? So it’s just one of those things where I try to think about where other people might be in that situation.”
Ibraheem and Stanislovaitis have both found success by pushing through their disabilities, inspiring others in their journey through the halls of WCC.