After dealing with multiple tragic incidents, one of which forced her to drop out of high school, Halima Ibrahim turned to poetry to cope with her emotions, and now finds comfort through the written and spoken word.
About a month ago, Ibrahim, an East Greenwich native, was named the state’s Youth Poetry Ambassador, a position that works to improve the resources of poetry for young people throughout Rhode Island. She is currently in her first-year at the Community College of Rhode Island working toward a fine art major, and is a Rhode Island Promise scholar.
Ibrahim has chronic neurological lyme disease and chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), both of which cause her immune system to attack her nervous system and damage the myelin sheath, which speeds the transmission of messages to the brain. Her condition made her unable to walk for about eight months, and she was unable finish ninth grade two years in a row. Ibrahim currently takes two medications and is able to function normally, with an occasional flare-up every two to three months.
However, that hasn’t stopped her. Ibrahim began writing poetry in 2018 as a way to process and relieve her daily anxieties regarding her chronic illness. The pieces she writes include short sonnets, extensive poems and eight-minute long slam poetry, but everything is written down in the google sheets app on her phone.
“Sometimes it’s full-on thoughts, other times it’s just little sentences that have no way to understand them at all,” Ibrahim said. “Most of the time when I’m writing poetry, it’s a spontaneous thought that I will write down. Sometimes I’ll write a few sentences, and then put it away for three to four months, and then get back to it and finish it. It’s all through my phone, and it’s very disorganized.”
The first time Ibrahim ever showcased her work was in 2018, during the March For Our Lives rally in Providence. In front of nearly 7,000 people, she performed ‘Wake Up,’ a seven-minute long piece.
“That was the week before I started medication, I was very over-stimulated and I had never done any kind of public speaking before,” she said. “I wasn’t really confident in my cognitive functions. When it comes to speaking I had always kind of stuttered a lot, which is why I choose poetry, because it’s a way that I don’t necessarily need to stutter; but it was insane.”
Ibrahim said that by the end of the poem, the entire crowd was chanting “wake up.” She also got approached from someone who worked at Brown University, and was offered the chance to give a Tedx Talk. Six months later, she presented “Life Gives You Lyme,” where she talked about her relationship with chronic illness through poetry. She also spoke to a small interfaith group at Brown University in early February, and will present at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Poetry Out Loud event on March 8.
One of her favorite poems is named “Halloween.” Before she completely pulled out of high school, Ibrahim had to redo ninth grade twice, and both years the day she stopped physically going to school was on Halloween. This fall was her first semester back at school, and all throughout October she was worried about the same incident occurring.
“I wrote Halloween as a way to kind of get it out to stop my anxiety from taking hold of me,” she said.
However, her poetry is not just related to her chronic illness. Ibrahim was living in Tahrir Square in Egypt when the Arab Spring erupted, and dealt with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for several years after. Her family left on the very last flight that was evacuating American citizens, after leaving their home at 2 a.m. with just one suitcase for all of them. According to Ibrahim, poetry has helped her be able to revisit her memories of the revolution and experience with it, and process those recollections.
While she only has about two to three programs that relate to the revolution, Ibrahim has written several poems pertaining to the disconnect she feels between her Egyptian and American identities.
“[They’re about] being both Egyptian and American and never quite fitting in with both,” Ibrahim said. “There are more poems about Egypt in general because I am a mixed-kid. My experience with the revolution has kind of made its way into that category.”
As Youth Poetry Ambassador, she hopes to show other teenagers struggling with certain traumas how poetry can be used to help them come to terms with what they are feeling.
“What I hope to do with the position is to teach other teenagers who are struggling with certain traumas or difficulties in their life how to be more comfortable with their voices, and be able to process things in a healthy way that isn’t so easy to find otherwise,” Ibrahim said. “I ended up picking up poetry as a way to kind of cope with my illness, and kind of keep my brain working.”
Since she just started the position and is back to school for the first time in two years, Ibrahim does not have any plans in place for what she hopes to accomplish with the position. She hopes to encourage more visibility of poetry so that students and the public alike can be immersed in the art. Ibrahim also noted that at CCRI, there have not been too many efforts to incorporate poetry into student life.
“There’s a push to start youth poetry competitions in Rhode Island, which is not something that we’ve previously had,” she said. “There have been greater efforts to incorporate open mic nights for poetry and I just joined student government, so I plan to push more of that.”
Once her midterm exams are over and she is feeling more comfortable with her ability to complete the academic year, Ibrahim said she will really begin to focus on how to improve youth poetry resources.
After her two years at CCRI, she plans to transfer into an Art History program so she is able to work at a museum. Her ultimate goal is to get her Ph.D. so she can teach. Ibrahim is shooting to get into Harvard University.
According to Ibrahim, Harvard has a .97 percent transfer rate, which presents her with a challenge.
“It’s more of a challenge for myself, to see if I, as a high school dropout and community college student can beat societies’ ideas of what a high school dropout and community college student should be,” Ibrahim said.
She is also looking into Brown University in Providence, Columbia University in New York City, and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.