Since arriving in England in 2004 as a single woman and refugee Ibtissam Al-Farah, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Yemen, has created a life with no family support, no recognised work experience and no English language. Now, Al-Farah, having since worked her way up to PhD level, is the founder and Director of Lavender International Consultancy and also a Co-Founder of The Development and Empowerment of Women’s Advancement Project. She is involved in projects for women asylum seekers and refugees and has spoken at various academic conferences as a political analyst and delivered seminars for the United Nations Human Rights meeting in Geneva about women and children in war zones.
Risk, Reward and Decision Making is the topic that Al-Farah will be speaking about at Aspire’s Trailblazing Leadership Conference, Dec. 12th and 13th in London. In a recent interview, we asked Al-Farah to tell us more about her experiences with Risk, Reward and Decision Making and how she has used it to propel herself forward and how we can all incorporate her wisdom into our own lives.
I am not sure if I am successful or not. I think it is still too early to say so. My list is still long. I am just doing my best as a person. In fact, I find myself in a new and different journey in England because I think in life, there is not an ending for when you can stop. Even if you can’t move, there’s no end point. You just keep going, doing what you think is better for yourself and for your family and for those you love.
I do not compare myself with anyone. I compare myself with yesterday, that’s how I measure my movement. Yes, I’m still able to do something for myself and for my family as well. Maybe it is because I experienced challenges and difficulties early in life.
At this age, I want to feel comfortable and safe. I don’t want to take anyone’s place. I believe in life that there is enough for everyone. If we really just mind our space, there is enough for everyone and everybody. I don’t appreciate comparing myself with others.
Sometimes it’s the anger that makes people do something negative. For me it is the anger that pushes me forward to do better for myself and to be nice to others instead of acting with anger. I lost my mother and father at an early age, thus losing real family support. This situation fuels my anger from inside, but this anger pushes me to do better. I always say to myself, “tomorrow is better and I will be better myself.” It works. I am sure I am allowed to be annoyed but I don’t allow myself to act with anger to anyone, respecting others is my only value reaction. I have to be soft and calm even to myself. I don’t punish myself after something is not good enough. I have to work hard and try to enjoy what I am doing to make it good enough.
I believe if it is yours, you will get it. If not, then it’s not yours. I fight in a good way. Maybe this is what keeps me moving.
I take risks but with a bit of control. I don’t like taking risks at high levels. I have a friend who always says to me “you are really careful Ibtissam. You’re afraid of everything and anything.” And I say back, “No, I’m taking care of myself.” I take a risk and try what I can do but something that’s not causing harm to myself or anyone. I think if I am a high risk taker maybe I would be better off but I can’t be that person. If anything wrong happens to me, I don’t have anyone to say or even give me that kind word or warm feeling saying “It’s OK.”
The first year I arrived in London, I experienced huge challenges. What I learned was that you have to face the difficulties, stop complaining and use the anger by turning it into good action for yourself. When I face any challenge or difficulty, I feel anger and want to know “why can’t I do it?” Have this kind of conversation with someone close to you and know that “It’s OK, you can try again.” I don’t really blame myself. It’s OK to feel angry. It’s healthy. It’s how are you going to use the anger? There’s nothing wrong with being angry if that anger drives you to do the right things. I turn it into powerful drive. I have been through a lot and sometimes I surprise myself thinking, “How did I manage to get myself out of that?”
Ibtissam Al-Farah | Courtesy of Ibtissam Al-Farah
Q. What are top tips for women who want to make more of themselves and don’t know where to start?
You have to be careful with trust. That’s what life taught me in a very harsh way. I wish I didn’t experience any of “The loss of trust of others” but at the same time I appreciate that it happened when I was younger.
There are two ways to look at it. One, it’s hard to lose trust. Two, it’s good because while I do trust at certain levels, I can’t totally give myself to someone unless they prove it. Which is helpful in the long run. This is a safe haven policy to keep me from causing myself unnecessary pain. When I do feel lonely, I go and take my diary and write. That’s how I calm myself. I’ve got a good relationship with myself. I trust myself.
I’m still exploring life and always looking forward to a good and peaceful life. I very much hope that the unfair war to stop as soon as possible in my home country and to be able to go back and contribute to rebuild it.
*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
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