By Lee Rasizer, CCA Director of Public and Media Relations
Reem Hamodi likes to keep the mood light, even if the joke is at her own expense.
When she discovered that her CCA math tutor, Gayle Smith, wasn’t a morning person, she immediately fired off an email telling Smith she planned on taking her 8 a.m. class. After clumsily navigating the narrow Accessibility Services Office, she told Kathleen Weisensel that she liked obstacle courses.
Reem gets special satisfaction playfully tormenting her family. She once told her mother she could see light just to gauge the reaction. To say that it spurred intense interest on her mom’s part is an understatement, given Reem’s blindness since birth.
Reem recalled her mother, Muna, hurriedly seeking out a light to put in front of her daughter’s eyes, only to discover that it was mom getting the wool pulled over hers.
Reem also has been known to use her walking cane to indiscriminately whack her parents or two siblings just for fun, and then laugh at their reaction.
As usual, Reem can’t hold onto the joke too long, punctuating her actions with a steady giggle.
Hearing that joyful burst, it’s immediately clear that while Reem views life without optics, she perhaps compensates with extra doses of heart and mind.
There have been a couple woe-is-me moments in her life, but she insisted wallowing hasn’t been part of her fabric since she was seven, when neighborhood children in her Baghdad, Iraq, hometown cruelly told her that she couldn’t play a schoolyard game because of her blindness.
Positivity is drawn from her mother and grandmother, especially, who have constantly fed her confidence and harped on her mental acuity and heightened sense of compassion.
So, ever since those kids singled her out, Reem has made it a point to avoid comparing herself to others, particularly those with sight. Today, so comfortable in her own skin, she’s not even sure if her vision could be restored surgically, as one uncle has suggested, she’d even do so.
Yet perhaps Reem Hamodi’s greatest trait is her determination to succeed. She spends weekends and off time reading not because it’s an assignment but because she can.
She does a lot of things with similar carefree ease. Problems are things she hopes to one day deal with professionally as a counselor. Wallowing in them isn’t part of her makeup.
“My mother used to tell me all the time a story about when I was born blind,” Reem recalled. “She took me to London and the doctor told her that she was very, very lucky, because if the (affected) nerve was a little bit to the back then I would have lost my mind. It didn’t affect my mind, just my sight. So, my mother reminds me of that all the time.”
Reem’s determined to use that mind to its fullest extent.
At CCA, it’s not unusual to see her in a darkened room, listening to her computer read passages aloud as she aggressively tackles a loaded summer class schedule. A Braille device also has been provided, but is used less often than her Job Access With Speech (JAWS) reader that, if it weren’t computerized, would be hoarse from all the talking.
“I feel used to my life,” Reem maintained. “I feel like everything is easy for me, and if I see, it’s going to be really hard and challenging for me because I’ve adapted. It’s not like I was born sighted and lost my sight. I was born blind.”
Muna, her mother, contracted Rubella during pregnancy but it was diagnosed as a simple high fever. A lack of medicine affected Reem in the womb irrevocably.
The family moved to Libya when Reem was five, then back to Iraq two years later. There were stops in Jordan, too, and in so many apartments that Reem can only guess there were about 18 of them growing up.
“Just looking. Checking everything out, trying to find out which country’s the best,” she joked.
One reason for the vagabond existence was her father seeking employment in the engineering field. But some of it, too, was trying to identify the best academic situation for Reem.
Schools for the blind were largely a misnomer in Iraq, with few student services.
Reem attended schools in three Middle Eastern countries and each had different methods of teaching math, even for simpler concepts like addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication.
Reem’s mother – really, a homeschool teacher without the official designation – learned each method in advance in order to teach her daughter how to navigate the numbers. She also took Reem to school daily and taught her daughter Braille. By the time Reem reached 12, without bus service to the ‘blind school’ and no useful instructional materials even if she could have found her way to campus, circumstances dictated that she attend a ‘regular’ school.
The experience was strange and tested Reem’s positive nature. The director of the ‘regular’ school initially refused to admit Reem because of her blindness but was forced to relent.
“We asked a case manager to interfere, and he explained that it wasn’t her right to refuse me as a blind student. So finally I registered. She enrolled me because they couldn’t violate the law.”
Still, the experience resonated. Being told the school couldn’t handle her is a conversation Reem can vividly recall even today. She remembered weeping her first day of classes, because despite her forced acceptance on the school rolls, it didn’t mean that there was widespread acceptance, particularly from the director who tried to bar her admission – and also taught classes.
“One day, I got sick and she didn’t even call my name. She called me ‘blind woman.’ It was like I didn’t even have a name. It was very hard for me.”
Over time, Reem developed a close group of friends. Many of the teachers didn’t share a similar cold-hearted nature as the school’s leader. Others persisted in their persecution. Reem recalled a Chemistry teacher needing visual aids for an assignment and telling the class that’s he didn’t want any excuses from “anyone who couldn’t see them.” One guess to whom that barb was aimed.
There would be other learning barriers for Reem, but just as many ways to overcome them. Her mother was a main source of aid, given the lack of materials in Braille. She would record all the lectures, read all the extra-credit assignments aloud, and come to the school to meet with the teachers to ensure that her daughter was getting everything necessary and didn’t require any special treatment.
“In Iraq the electricity wasn’t good. They’d give it to us for three, four hours in a day, so my mother used to wake up in the middle of the night to read whenever I had a test,” Reem recalled. “She used to read to me. I couldn’t study myself. We’d use candles or a special machine, what you’d call, a generator?”
One sympathetic teacher volunteered to read the test questions and write the answers down as Reem spoke them aloud, alleviating some of the pressure on mom. But that same teacher initially was hesitant until she was swayed by Reem’s character and drive.
“This teacher told my mother initially that when I first came to her class, she had told the director she didn’t want to teach the class because of my blindness. But after the teacher saw me, she said she hoped all students would be like me – as far as participating and understanding all the materials.”
Reem’s marks on tests often were the highest in the class. Again, her engrained optimism was a key contributor, in spite of plenty of information presented that would have made lashing back seem appropriate and even understandable.
Study was her safe harbor, even without a textbook flapped open in front of her to serve as guide.
Staying even-keeled was a mantra.
“I just felt like I should look at the positive side all the time,” Reem explained. “I even wrote an article about positive psychology because if I give up, it’s going to make more barriers, in addition to the barriers I already have. Giving up is another barrier, so it doesn’t make sense. I thought if I could show them what blind people could accomplish, this could be a very useful thing – even to myself.”
And when graduation day arrived, it was no big surprise that Reem had earned the highest cumulative grade in the entire school.
The director who had opposed her from the get-go happened to hear that little nugget while Reem stood close by. And although she had never seen it, Reem could surmise from her mom’s description what stone-faced meant; could imagine a rigid, unaccepting posture.
One also could imagine the self-satisfaction Reem felt having someone so detached from expressing compassion or even understanding towards her at least having to acknowledge what she’d accomplished.
“When I think back I feel so proud because I feel like it shaped my personality and it taught me so many things,” she said. “It taught me not to give up easily, and it taught me how to deal with all of the challenges.”
Reem began her college journey in Jordan after leaving that Iraqi school. Her mother tagged along to classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to ensure that Reem made it to all the lectures and would read all of the textbooks in order to pass along that knowledge. But it soon became clear the situation wasn’t sustainable for the long haul.
A United Nations organization intervened at the family’s urging and suggested the family move outside the Middle East in order to help Reem further her studies.
When the group discovered Reem’s blindness in an in-person meeting, the United States became the destination. “The happiest day in my life,” Reem said.
Mainly an Arabic speaker with some knowledge of English, she initially transplanted to Houston before moving again, this time to the Denver area, where she attended the Colorado Center for the Blind. There, she received the technology she needed to become more proficient in the language. Reem’s spoken English at the time was slow and replete with mistakes. ESL classes helped her turn the corner and elevated her comfort level.
And with her confidence and skills boosted, she enrolled at CCA in 2012 to begin taking college courses.
“She genuinely loves being a student. Her passion is really, really clear,” said Weisensel, who has worked side by side with Hamodi for nearly a year as her Accessibility Specialist at CCA. “If you ever ask Reem what her weekend plans are, or summer plans, or over the break, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s always, ‘studying,’ or ‘reading.’ That’s what she wants to do. And it’s not out of some necessity, like, ‘If I don’t keep up with it then I’ll fall behind …’ It’s just, ‘What I live and what I want to do,’ and she’s unapologetic about that.”
The technological tools at Reem’s disposal at CCA have allowed her to continue gaining the independence she desired so badly when she arrived in the U.S.
She was used to her mother’s voice reading to her – loved hearing it, actually, but she didn’t want to rely on it, either. Now, she no longer had to ask for help quite as often. She could conduct some of her own research on the Internet. And, yes, she could read, as many books as she wanted, assigned or not.
“It opened up everything,” Reem said.
Her high grades have reflected her dedication, as does a heavy course load that doesn’t seem to faze her even as it amazes others.
Reem’s smile only reinforces that she’s found what she’s sought, even without sight as the vehicle. Or, maybe the wide-grin she consistently shows off is merely the outward reflection of a private little joke that she’s not quite ready to share.
“All people have challenges, struggling with materials, but it’s not big issues for me,” she said. “I can ask teachers, Accessibility Services. CCA has good services in tutoring. I can get help from other people.”
If everything falls right, in about a half-dozen years Reem will be Dr. Hamodi. She intends on becoming a counselor, after finishing associate, bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in Psychology.
“I’m interested in helping people,” she stated, simply. “When I was young, I liked to help people. When I saw a conflict between friends, I didn’t like it and I’d try to resolve it.”
And who’s to argue that the study of the troubled mind isn’t a perfect fit?
The enjoyment of navigating obstacles seemingly is a perfect fit with that particular career path.