An interview with Farah Ahmedi, the winner of The Story of My Life, a project of ABC-TV and Simon & Schuster.
This interview is reproduced with the kind permission of Doris Booth of Authorlink.com. It took place before Farah was announced as the overall winner of the contest.
Everyone has a story to tell, but few have the resources and connections to
find a publisher and an audience. For the three lucky finalists of The Story of
My Life contest, however, their stories are being publicized nationwide as Simon
Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, teams up with ABC-TV's
Good Morning America to discover a first-time author of a compelling American
Three finalists have been chosen from among 5,000 essay entries and have appeared on ABC-TV's Good Morning America and 20/20. They are Betty Ferguson, a mother who forgave her daughter's killer; Mercedes Florencia Brudnicki, a sister whose brother was trapped in Castro's Cuba; and Farah Ahmedi, an Afghan girl who lost her leg to a landmine. The American public voted and chose Farah's story.
Farah Ahmedi, a 17-year-old girl whose childhood in Afghanistan was filled with horror and sadness. What she endures in her war-torn homeland and how she escapes is tragic, yet ultimately hopeful. Her father and sisters were killed and her brothers went missing, never to be heard from again.
On the way to school one day at age seven, she steps on a land mine. The local hospital can do little but add to the excruciating pain by pouring alcohol on her horrible wounds. A humanitarian organization transports Farah to Germany, but is too late to save both her legs, infected with gangrene. One leg is amputated below the knee. The other is fused and rigid to this day. After two years alone in a German hospital, she returns to Afghanistan a changed person. After most of her family is wiped out by a rocket attack, she and her mother are left without a male relative to care for them. They walk across the mountains to reach Pakistan and somehow make it into a refuge camp. After four years of hardship she and her mother are chosen to come to America.
Since arriving here three years ago, Farah has blossomed into a thriving high school student who is being actively recruited by Yale and Harvard. Her new life in America is guided by mentor Alyce Litz, who rescued Farah and her mother from homelessness.
Authorlink: How did you come to participate in the contest?
Farah: My friend Alyce says 'You should write your story.' I say 'I will write, after I am done with my education. Yes, I will write about my life.'
Alyce: I had already encouraged her to write her story. Then I was watching Good Morning America and heard about The Story of My life contest. I thought it was a great opportunity for Farah. So, I helped her write her 600-word submission. I thought a lot of people would want to hear the story. We talked about how she overcame the tremendous odds to stay alive in Afghanistan and to get to America. Farah took over from there. After having completed only first and second grade in Afghanistan, Farah was placed in a freshman class at high school. She had only learned 'survival' English. We found volunteer tutors for her from the local college to help her catch up. She was an extremely fast study and after only three years her English is amazingly good.
Authorlink to Farah: How did you and Alyce meet?
Farah: Alyce was a volunteer for World Relief. She liked my mother and me and she visited us in America for three months. Then she kept being our friendfor three years. Now we are friends forever.
Alyce: I have been involved in social service with abused and neglected children for many years. I am the president of the board for Love, Inc., a Christian clearinghouse that serves the poor and needy of DuPage County. My husband and I took training at World Relief before 9/11. We read books about women in the Middle East. I hoped to find a pen pal from that area. After our training I was assigned as a volunteer mentor to Farah and her mom. It dawned on me that God answered my prayers to an even greater degree. I got both a mother and a daughter right here in the U.S.
Farah: Yes, now I have a second family. Alyce told me, 'Don't just call me mom. You have a mom.' So I call Alyce Mommy Two.
Authorlink: I understand you worked with professional writer Tamin Ansary, assigned by the publisher to help you tell your story. What was that like?
Farah: We sat down and I talked about my past life for five days. I was comfortable with him because he spoke my native language, Farsi.
Alyce: He wanted this book in her voice and words. He recorded and transcribed exactly as she said it, telling the story in her own words.
Authorlink: And if you win this contest, your book will be released April 22?
Farah: Not if I win; when I win.
Alyce: The finalists have three wonderful stories. Only the winning one will be published. But Farah's spirit of confidence has always been what keeps her going.
Farah: People have told me I am special, that I have a specialhow you saygift? I didn't believe anybody. Now that I am a finalist I say, 'Oh my gosh, maybe I am special.'
Authorlink: You spent two years in a German hospital recovering from your injuries and completely separated from your family. How did that affect you?
Farah: In hospital I didn't have any hope that I can walk again, no hope to see my family again.
Authorlink: How were you able to get to America?
Farah: In Pakistan they announce on the radio that the American government will take 1,000 Afghanis who need to go to the United States. There were so many people, we waited for two days for the interview. They saw my condition and that I needed a prosthesis. They said, 'Okay, your case is special. You and your mother can come.' We were on the list to go when 9/11 happened. It was sad. A door was open for us and then it closed. We had to wait for several more months to leave. By the time they were ready for us, mother was ill and very frightened to come to America. I knew it was her only chance for a future. She wasn't ready to come, but I dragged her out. [There's humor in her voice when she says this].
Authorlink: Has the experience of being a finalist in this contest made you want to become a writer?
Farah: I'll be happy to write books. I would also be happy to be in medicine, working with prosthetics. But I have to find out how smart I am. I also like technology, working with computers. My career could go in different directions.
Alyce: I have been telling her about artists and famous people in history and reading to her. She has a thirst for knowledge. We have talked about doing a children's book together. She would write the story and we would both illustrate the book. Farah is a good communicator. She has wonderful listening skills and is sensitive to other people.
Authorlink: What was life like for you in Afghanistan?
Farah: I was so scared. A lot of times I wonder why I didn't die. Those were hard times. When hard times come to you, you don't care whether you die. You just want to get away.
Authorlink: What would you say to people who are still in war-torn countries?
Farah: In life there is a high part and a low part. When you are in the low part you must try to get up. Just run, climb. Don't sit on the bottom.
Authorlink: What is the biggest problem in Afghanistan?
Farah: The biggest problem is education. I would tell parents to see that their kids go to school. I'm still struggling with my education. I am starting from the beginning. You suffer when you don't go to school. One day I will go back to my country and tell kids to go to school. I will tell parents to encourage their children to get an education.
Authorlink: What has kept you going through these hard times?
Farah: In Afghanistan I didn't have anyone. In the US I have Alyce. Before I met Alyce, I was alone. No one was asking me, 'How was your day?' My mom was quite sick. Alyce would call me and say 'You're doing great. You are smart.' It helped a lot. I began working harder. I had a chance to learn English with Alyce. She explained every word slowly. Mom speaks Farsi. I was the only who could speak in English.
Authorlink: What was your first impression of America?
Farah: When the airplane got over Chicago [Alyce lives in Wheaton, IL] I looked down and saw the beautiful lights. I never saw that much lights in my life. There were buildings and many cars. I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, did I die? Maybe I die and this is what they call heaven.'
Authorlink: How does it feel to be in America and what do you like the most about being here?
Farah: It feels great to be in America. I like that I have a friend, Alyce, who cares about me. She is there if I need someone. I'm safe here, no war. I like the love I have here, and the system. I like shopping. It is so clean here. People take care of nature and things are in controlthe streets, traffic lights. It is peaceful . . . safe.
Read all three finalists' stories on Authorlink.com
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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