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Just as she began to enter adulthood, Nasra Hassan thought she had her life planned out: Graduate college by 21, earn a master’s degree by 23, and enter the nonprofit sector shortly thereafter.
In spring 2013, as she enrolled in her first semester of postsecondary school at Normandale Community College, Nasra started to develop bad headaches. A doctor prescribed migraine medicine, but the pain persisted. She would go to bed and wake up with a headache; Nasra started to wear sunglasses inside to mitigate her sensitivity to light.
“The pain was so much, sometimes I would have to literally hit my head, because that would relieve it,” she said.
After more visits to the doctor’s office, a specialist recommended an MRI. The results came back with a frightening diagnosis: a benign brain tumor. During surgery to remove the tumor, another setback occurred: Nasra suffered a stroke.
She woke up in the hospital, unable to talk, walk, or say her parents’ names. When a doctor told her she may not be able to leave the hospital for another six months, she started to cry. Her life had taken a sharp detour.
Seated outside a coffee shop near the University of Minnesota nearly eight years later, Nasra recalls the story vividly. She’s almost in disbelief at how much time has passed and how much her life has changed since the incident.
Now 26, she has fulfilled most of her initial goals, save graduate school; she’s currently looking into that. Nasra is also part of a younger generation of Somali leaders breaking cultural norms on sensitive issues that have traditionally stayed private.
She is soft-spoken but tells her story energetically: Her experience is a kind of bridge to discuss issues she says have traditionally been stigmatized in her community.
She recalls in particular how, at a Model United Nations conference one year after her stroke, a Somali man in his 30s interrupted her as she was relaying her experiences to a white colleague. It’s in the past, the man told her: Now that she was better, she didn’t need to discuss it.
“Yes, it’s in the past,” Nasra says today, reflecting on the conversation, “but my stroke has a lot to do with who I am right now, and the person that I’ve become.”
‘It was ingrained in me to be ashamed’
Nasra says attitudes like the man’s still exist in her community. She’s even absorbed them herself and initially felt embarrassed about her stroke. This is just one of many reasons why disability should be addressed openly in her community, Nasra said.
“It doesn’t make sense, but it was ingrained in me to be ashamed of myself,” she said. “There’s a whole culture where talking about stuff like that is shameful. I don’t want Somalis, Muslims, or anyone to feel ashamed or uncomfortable with their disability.”
Abdullahi Sheikh has seen the same dynamic in his work as a public health specialist who coordinates the Somali Autism Project for African Community Services. Abdullahi said the sensitivity over issues like disability in his community is an attitude inherited from the customs of the past. In East Africa, he says, Somali people historically belonged to a nomadic society.
“In nomadic life, the main capital is manpower: someone who can herd the goats, the sheep,” Abdullahi said. “We come from that background, and over time we’ve inherited the cultural practices based on that. If somebody is disabled, they can’t often contribute to the workforce of nomadism.”
These attitudes still came up during interviews with Somali parents as part of his work on the Somali Autism Project, Abdullahi said. But they’re less of a factor in younger generations. “A lot of things are changing,” Abdullahi said.
People like Nasra may have something to do with that.
‘I was born again’
It took a few days in the hospital after the stroke for Nasra to fully comprehend what she had just gone through.
“I knew something happened, but it didn’t click,” Nasra said. “I remember being in a wheelchair and questioning why. I tried to stand up and obviously I couldn’t, because the right side of my body was paralyzed.”
Once she did understand, she said she went into a dark place. Instead of graduating college, she had to address more pressing goals. Get discharged from the hospital. Regain her speech. Learn how to walk again.
“I forgot how to literally do anything,” she said. “What I love to say is, I was born again.”
One step at a time, Nasra met her new goals. Soon, she was fast-tracking them. She left the hospital just 25 days after her stroke. She completed occupational and physical therapy six months after the stroke. The following year, she graduated speech therapy.
She credits her family, friends, and God with getting her through recovery. She points to one verse in the Qur’an that stayed with her: “God does not burden a soul beyond capacity.”
In the spring semester of 2014, Nasra re-enrolled at Normandale, taking one class. The following fall semester, she upped her course load to two classes. Gradually, she added more courses, enrolling full time in spring 2015.
Studying didn’t come back to her easily, and Nasra recalls struggling with an English course. This challenge prompted her to go to the school’s tutoring center. There, she learned that Normandale had a resource center for students with disabilities. She quickly took advantage of it. Throughout college at Normandale and the University of Minnesota, she connected with resources: a person who would take her class notes, and a pencil that could record audio from the lectures.
Along the way, lecturers like Alyssa Isaacs, who taught a communication course to Nasra at the University of Minnesota, became mentors. Isaacs recalls giving her students an assignment to videotape themselves making a speech in front of a group of people. Nasra reached out to Isaacs and told her she was nervous about the project. Isaacs modified the assignment for Nasra, allowing her to record herself giving a speech alone and submit the video to only her.
“I didn’t think about it at the time, but later on she told me that it helped her self-esteem, realizing that she can do this,” Isaacs said.
A few years later, Isaacs learned that Nasra had worked up the confidence to give a public speech as part of her graduation. One thing Nasra doesn’t express is self pity, Isaacs added: “She’s said she’s grateful for everything in her life, even her stroke.”
Nasra earned an associate’s degree from Normandale in 2017 and a bachelor’s degree in global studies from the University of Minnesota.
Destigmatizing issues in the community
To this day, Nasra still has residual effects from her stroke. This includes aphasia, a condition that causes her to take longer processing information than she did before her stroke. If someone asks her a question, for example, she’ll sometimes analyze it before giving an answer.
“To everyone else, I look fine—and I am fine,” Nasra said. “But it’s that little thing where it sometimes takes me an extra second.”
Nasra still hasn’t fulfilled one of her initial adulthood goals in obtaining a master’s degree. That may soon change, as Nara is actively reviewing programs at Hamline University, Metropolitan State University, and the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Currently, she’s a legal advocate for the Minnesota Disability Law Center, which provides free legal services for people with disabilities. Last year, she worked as an advocate for the Domestic Abuse Project. As part of her work, Nasra goes to public events in the Somali community and tries to engage people to talk about issues that traditionally have stayed private.
Recently, she set up booths at local events celebrating Somali Independence Day and then Eid al-Adha, giving out free merchandise to spread awareness about the Disability Law Center’s available resources. Nasra is also currently preparing to host a forum with community members later this summer as part of the Disability Law Center’s listening sessions. She expects the topic of her stroke will likely come up.
One reason Nasra said she believes discussions like these need to happen is so people know about the existing resources available to them. Though the student disability resources were crucial to helping her in college, Nasra didn’t know about them until a tutor told her. She’s hoping resources like these can come more quickly to others who need them.
“We want to show the world, and show the Muslim community, that we exist and we’re here to help,” she said.