“Every child deserves a champion; an adult who will never give up on them, who understand the power of connection and insists that they become the best they can possibly be.”
When I turned 40 years old, my beloved uncle Mohamed, handed me a bundle of letters. The letters I had written to him since I was 8 years old! He had kept all the letters and scribblings I used to send him, containing my thoughts as a child going through very emotional times, as a teenager trying to figure out life, and as young adult navigating through education, migration, marriage, divorce and single parenthood. These letters have it all!! I asked him why he kept all these letters for all these years, he said to me – “Your letters used to keep me going as I was so far away from the family. I used to read your letters over and over as not only did they contain about you, but you wrote about all the major events happening with almost everyone else.”
He went on to say, “I treasured your letters as I knew every word you wrote in them came from your heart – sharing your pain, joy and excitement with me was indeed special hence keeping them for all these years – now I want you to have them.” My uncle was not only my long distance counsellor, he was my friend, he was and still is my number one fan. Our special relationship started off explicitly when I was 8 years old- when he became my pen pal, my agony aunt and my sounding board for my ideas, thoughts and feelings.
8 years old was when my world as I had known it changed forever. It was a day I sensed was coming, as I had observed my parents strained relationship play out in their daily interaction as I lurked about observing and absorbing the vibes. I was the kind of child who was very intuned with others’ feelings, especially those of my parents. That evening, that evening is forever recorded in my memory, I remember exactly what happened and how it happened. My mother dressed us all up and said we would soon go out to the movies but first there is something we need to do. She led us into the living room, where my father and his friends were already sitting. All four of us, sat next to our mother, I can’t remember what the men were saying but I remember the emotion – that gripping sadness that overtook my little heart, the tears rolling down my older siblings’ eyes made me cry too!
We silently wept, as our lives were to forever to change – I knew it, I could feel it. I remember the signing of a paper, I don’t remember everything that was said but I remember my mother getting up quietly after she was handed the paper, gathered all of us and lead us out. There was never a talk or discussion about what had just happened, we left the house and headed to the movies – this was my mother’s way of easing what I now know was the day she got divorced and the end of our family as it was. The changes followed not long after the divorce when both my parents left the family home, my mother had to go to work in another town and with her she took my siblings, as I was in a very good school it was thought best to leave me behind. My father straight away after the divorce moved home to his new family as he had just got married to my step-mother. I was left with my maternal grandmother and aunties, I was very much loved, but I desperately missed my family.
I started penning down my thoughts and feelings – the only person, I trusted with all that was my beloved uncle Mohamed. I poured my heart out to him; I told him tales, I told him about the family, I basically told him in writing anything and everything. I made demands, I asked for things, I gave him advice and mostly, I told him my inner world. Writing was my way of expressing my anxieties, concerns and at times excitements. Some of the letters he treasured are from me at aged twelve, expressing my worst fears – as my father was becoming unwell and I had no means of helping him. I told him how my heart was breaking as both my parents didn’t seem to be happy and I wished I could fix them. Another letter reveals me being a typical teenager, very focused on friends and my new found loves for ballet, books, and badminton. At age sixteen, thinking I am more of an adult, my letter shows me advising him in the matters of his life, urging him to get married, to lose weight. Other letters reveal my anxieties about exams, future and careers. Some reveal the loneliness I experienced when I immigrated to Europe, the anguish of lack of family around one at the tender age of nineteen. At twenty one, I wrote to him full of excitement as I was getting married. I told him all the lovely things I thought of my fiancé, the letter was hopeful and joyful to read again. The letters reveal the sheer confidence and trust I had with my uncle – I was so confident and at ease with my uncle, I would tell him anything and everything.
The child, the teenager and the young adult within me can never thank him enough for being who he was and still is – my Champion. In our Somali culture, one’s maternal uncle is basically a male version of one’s mother. He didn’t give birth to me but he gave birth to my spirit – he nurtured it, he watered it with loving words, kindness and belief in me. He championed me then and still champions me now. I will treasure the treasure he had kept for me all these years – my thoughts, my feelings and my life on paper – the letters to my agony aunt, my pen pal and my motivator – My Beloved Uncle Mohamed.
My uncle has a soul of an angle; he was and is very kind, very giving and very attentive. I still bask with happiness and confidence whenever I am around him. My champion has been battling Parkinson’s disease for the last eleven years, his life and mine has had many ups and downs but we are going strong – we still are each other’s champion, he is mine and I am his.
Every child surely deserves a champion!
Zeinab Sulemani is a mother of one. She teaches English as a second language in a secondary school and volunteers working with young people. She is currently, training to be a children & youth counsellor and coach.