I live a privileged life, but it didn’t start that way.
As a baby in Somalia, I contracted the poliovirus — a highly contagious disease that attacked my brain and left me partially paralyzed from the waist down.
But I was never the shrinking-violet type. I developed a thick skin and a combative approach to whatever life threw at me, which I maintain to this day.
We have come a long way in the fight against polio. Before the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) started in 1988, the disease paralyzed more than 1,000 children a day. We are close to the finish line, but the world continues to see cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and until every child is immunized, polio will continue to be a threat to every child.
When I was 6, two young girls from my neighbourhood were playing hopscotch. They were having fun, but I couldn’t take part due to my limitations from having polio. I asked the girls if I could play with them anyway, but they laughed and questioned my ability to hop and jump.
That day, I decided to stand up for myself even though I couldn’t physically stand on my own. I didn’t even have crutches, but I knew I couldn’t rely on anyone else to fight my battles for me. I instigated a fight by biting one of the girls on the leg. I do not promote violence… but with my persevering attitude, those girls never stood a chance.
My grandmother raised me and showered me with gifts at every opportunity, and the best gift she ever gave me washer strong will — it’s something I appreciate still to this day. She gave me the encouragement that helped get me confront my many obstacles.
After my fight with the two girls, my grandmother made a decision that changed my life. She decided she was going to teach me to stand and walk without any help, not even a walking aid. She snapped a twig off a tree outside our home and swatted me with it until I learned to stand on my own two feet, using my hand to support my weak left leg.
Her way of inspiring me might be considered troubling in our society today, but I wouldn’t be the woman I am without the strength my grandmother instilled in me.
When I was 8, my family and I came to Canada as refugees, fleeing civil war. For the first time in my life, I was able to receive treatment for my disability. I spent many days at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto learning to use my new leg brace and forearm crutches.
Going to school had been a dream of mine in Somalia. Every day, I watched other children walk to school and back. I was heartbroken when my younger brother started school and I was forced to stay home. In Canada, I was enrolled in school and was treated like the other children. I finally fit in.
Today, I feel privileged, because in Canada I have access to healthcare and education, and every public building has a ramp… although because of my stubborn nature, I usually take the stairs.
But there are children living with polio and its aftereffects who are not as fortunate as me. There are children who are at risk of contracting polio, who will not have access to education or proper medical care. Polio will rob these children of their childhood.
World Polio Day is a great time to help raise awareness for the need to continue supporting the GPEI. There is still much work to be done if we want to eradicate polio by 2023, but I know that with global support, the possibility is there.
As a polio survivor and a special polio representative for UNICEF Canada, I dream of the day polio becomes a disease of the past and every child has the chance to play.
Safia Ibrahim is a special polio representative for UNICEF Canada. Global Citizen and UNICEF are part of a coalition of organizations working to raise awareness for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which has the goal of eradicating polio by 2023.