Turning Giving Up into Getting Up: Firdaws Dahmani
By Sandy Gonsalves
Firdaws Dahmani is no stranger to adversity. But after being knocked down more than once, she’s determined to pick herself up and grow stronger.
Firdaws (pronounced Furdoze) grew up in Casablanca, Morocco. Her childhood was idyllic in many ways. She lived five minutes from the beach in year-round sunshine, with parents who loved and supported her, two sisters to play with and a grandmother she visited every weekend.
Firdaws had lots of close friends growing up. Learning came easy to her, and she was always a top student in her class. “I liked school,” she recalls. “It was so much fun.”
Then Firdaws entered high school. And her sweet teenage world fell apart.
Virtually overnight, school became highly competitive. While outwardly her friendships seemed the same, Firdaws sensed that many girls were jealous of her good grades. Other parents were pushing their kids hard to excel.
The payoff for academic success was huge: The top student in her graduating class was awarded a free college education, which essentially guaranteed a great job and a bright future. Firdaws was focused on earning this prize. “I’ve never worked harder in my life than that year,” she remembers.
As college exams grew near, there were signs around the school announcing that testing started at 2:00. What Firdaws didn’t know was that the exams actually started at 1:00 and her “friends” had changed the time on the signs to sabotage her.
On exam day, everyone but Firdaws showed up on time. Because she was late, she was not permitted to take the test. This “0” grade knocked her out of the running for the scholarship.
Her parents petitioned school administrators, but there were no second chances. While the teachers may have known that Firdaws had been targeted, two of the culprits’ parents were major contributors to the school. Not only did the decision stand, but no one believed that Firdaws’ friends had tricked her.
She was devasted. Her college dreams were crushed, and she lost all her friends — girls she had known and trusted her whole life.
Firdaws gave up on college and retreated to the safety of her room where she talked to no one, not even her family. Months went by. Her parents intervened, and she was diagnosed with clinical depression. She entered treatment and worked hard three days a week for months to climb out of the dark place she was in. As Firdaws reflects on this time, she recalls, “Some days I would wake up so late. But I don’t regret it, because at least I was waking up.”
During this time, she met a young man named Imad on Facebook. He was from Morocco but lived in the U.S. His parents knew her parents. But more importantly, this kind man helped Firdaws heal by showing her that kindness and trust truly exist.
To help her escape depression, Imad combed through hours of YouTube videos, learning and singing Firdaws’ favorite songs to her, like Evanescence’s “My Immortal.” Firdaws was touched, and their online relationship blossomed.
Imad planned a visit to Morocco so the two could meet face to face. As the time approached, Firdaws wondered how to get ready. She put makeup on, then washed it off. She applied it again. Then washed it off again. Ultimately, she decided to go makeup-free, because that’s the real Firdaws. “He has to like who I am, not the fake one with makeup,” she said.
When Imad met her, he said, “I’m glad you aren’t wearing makeup. I was afraid you were going to put makeup on like other girls.” That’s also the moment he told her he loved her for the first time.
They were engaged within a week and married a few weeks later. “It was fast and crazy. But when you meet the right person, you know,” said Firdaws. Eighteen months later, her visa came through, and Firdaws joined her husband in December 2016, settling into her new home in the Boston area.
Within a few weeks of arriving, Firdaws knew she was ready to return to her studies. She became excited about the Year Up program after hearing about it from an alumnus, a friend of Imad’s.
One major obstacle was that Firdaws didn’t speak English, so she set out to learn. Armed with a notebook and piles of movies and songs, she feverishly scribbled English words and phrases, absorbing them like a sponge. With a little English under her belt, she applied for and was accepted into Year Up.
Firdaws’ first months in the U.S. were some of her hardest since the depression. Because she was Muslim and wore a headscarf, she was forced to deal with cruel racism. “In Morocco, people treat each other like brothers and sisters. In the U.S., people treated me like an enemy,” she said.
She was called a terrorist and accused of killings and explosions. On the train, passengers often moved away when she sat down, or they got off at the next stop. One day, a young boy said fearfully, “Look out mom, there’s another one.” A man once assaulted her as she was getting off the subway. Alone and confused, she was often driven to tears.
Things got so bad that she started giving up on people altogether and didn’t speak to anyone during her first month at Year Up. “I didn’t want to make friends. I was afraid they would betray me as well,” she explains.
But after talking to her coach and hearing about another student’s hardships, she changed her mind. She started coming out of her shell and meeting people. “Because of all the support I received at Year Up, I decided it was time to use all the bad words as fuel for my growth,” she said. She began making friends and learning from her coaches and mentors. And she stopped listening to what strangers thought about her.
While pursuing her studies often extra challenging because she was simultaneously learning a second language she rediscovered her childhood love of IT. Always curious about how technology worked, she knew she had discovered her true calling when, at age 14, she singlehandedly repaired her family’s television.
As an intern at LogMeIn, Firdaws gained valuable hands-on experience. She replaced MacBook parts and reassembled a printer. When she broke a keyboard, she studied online tutorials, learning how to open peripherals correctly. Firdaws still has that broken keyboard, determined to fix it once she has the right tools.
After she successfully completed the Year Up program— culminating in an inspiring graduation speech and a surprise party from Imad —Firdaws began interviewing for IT positions. She applied for her dream job in Year Up’s IT department but became discouraged during the interview process. After hearing the technical requirements for the job, (many of which Firdaws didn’t have), she was asked by one of the hiring managers if she thought she was a fit. How did she respond? “I wasn’t going to lie. I wasn’t going to say, ‘This is me!’ when what he was saying wasn’t me.”
Once again, being herself paid off and Firdaws got the job! This same manager told her afterward that she was hired, in part, because she answered his question honestly.
Today, in addition to working, Firdaws is taking online computer science courses, in pursuit of her goal to attend MIT. She’s come to love her new life in the U.S. And perhaps most importantly, she is no longer that devastated young woman who gave up on college and her future.
Her advice for others who are struggling to move forward? When times get tough, instead of giving up or finding excuses, Firdaws believes it’s important to fight through your fears. “My biggest learning is it’s OK to fail, as long as you get up and try again.”