EAST GREENWICH – The journey to becoming accomplished in any field is not an easy one. Halima Ibrahim knows that better than most.
Ibrahim is Rhode Island’s Junior Poet Laureate. Her road to that honor went mostly through her bedroom, which she was confined to for five months due to a condition called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy, or CIDP.
CIDP is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own tissues. The illness took over Ibrahim’s life in 2017, forcing her to drop out of East Greenwich High School in her freshman year. She couldn’t move her legs, experienced extreme fatigue, and suffered from seizures.
Bedridden, she started writing poetry to pass the time and never stopped.
“Poetry really became my salvation,” said Ibrahim, now a second year student at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.
Life started improving for the 18-year-old poet about three years ago. She first shared her poetry publicly at a March For Our Lives protest at the State House in 2018. The event led to a TEDx Talk at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence later that year.
Still, it wasn’t easy for Ibrahim to go public with her poetry. In the talk, she told the audience that she likely would be too tired to walk the next day due to her condition, despite some progress with the illness.
“The entire experience was kind of nerve wracking,” Ibrahim said. “I never really thought that I was ever going to do it.”
It turns out she was able to walk the next day, despite heavy fatigue.
While she still has to take medicine weekly to keep her immune system from attacking her nervous system, Ibrahim has recovered a great deal from the days when she couldn’t even move her legs.
“My neurologist says that I’m the fastest recovery that he’s ever seen, which is great for me,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim found out that she was named Junior Poet Laureate last January. She said that receiving the position was an affirmation of her as a poet, and it meant a lot to her.
Tina Cane, the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, calls Ibrahim tenacious and hardworking, and says that her potential is limitless.
“I was very impressed with her self-possession and her ability to self-advocate and advocate for what she believes in,” Cane said. “She has a lot of potential to advocate for poetry.”
Ibrahim’s topics in her poems have broadened during college. In high school, she focused on national issues, such as gun control and racism. Now, while she still writes about those, she’s also writing about issues at her school — a fitting pivot since she is CCRI’s student government president.
“I basically switched from doing stuff statewide to doing stuff college- and community-wide, which has been much more manageable,” she said.
Her achievements have been noticed nationally. She is a semifinalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship — the only Rhode Islander to qualify for the prestigious award.
If she wins, she will receive a college scholarship of up to $40,000 annually for three years, something that will certainly help as she explores transfer options to other colleges and universities. At this point, she’s looking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard University, Stanford University and other colleges throughout the country.
Ibrahim’s rise coincides with greater national interest in poetry following the performance of National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at President Joseph Biden’s inauguration. Ibrahim said that Gorman’s performance was a moving moment for her and for young poets, particularly young poets of color.
“I was constantly hearing things like, ‘(Gorman’s reading) was the same energy you had at the State House in 2018,’ ” Ibrahim said. “It was reaffirming on both ends seeing Amanda up there as a woman of color and as someone with a speech impediment at such a grand occasion.”
Ibrahim describes herself as “mostly fluent” in Arabic, having lived in Egypt for two years as a child, although she said that she does struggle speaking the language. Her father is from Cairo, and her mother graduated from Pilgrim High School. They met when her mother was teaching English in Cairo during the late 1990s, and eventually moved to the United States.
As Ibrahim focuses more on Middle Eastern Studies at CCRI, she has begun improving her Arabic language skills and incorporating the language into her poetry.
Ibrahim started wearing a hijab last January. Around that time, she said people became more aggressive toward her, and she also experienced overt prejudice, which, as she noted, was no coincidence.
Prejudice has become a central theme of her poetry, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people, regardless of religion, to cover their faces.
“Not only was I covering my hair, but now we’re also having to cover our faces,” Ibrahim said. “There was this kind of level of uncomfortability people around me had, and associating me with how they perceived niqabis, or Muslim women who cover their face. It’s this increased Islamophobia that I didn’t realize was going to happen at the start of the pandemic.”
As she moves forward in college, she’s looking forward to setting new challenges and goals for herself. One thing is certain: she’ll continue writing her poetry, and look to inspire others as she does it.
“Being able to share poetry with other people gives me hope that I could offer inspiration up to other people as well,” Ibrahim said.
This story was done as freelance work for the Warwick Beacon during my sophomore year of college, and was published in one of their print editions in March of 2021.