Joyce Fegan: How teenagers Natasha and Minahil school our politicians in leadership

Joyce Fegan: How teenagers Natasha and Minahil school our politicians in leadership
Teenage best friends Natasha Maimba and Minahil Sarfraz have shown the nation that change is possible if you work hard enough. This is the kind of leadership that Ireland needs now and in the years to come.

Inundated with ‘now and then photos’ on social media, New Year’s resolutions, and expert articles about how to make ever-lasting change, Natasha and Minahil seemed to be the only purveyors of inspiration this New Year

Our headlines already read: ‘Things are getting worse.’ We’re not even a week into the new year, the new decade.

A second headline reads ‘It is hell on earth” and we’re also being warned not to underestimate the chances of another term with Donald Trump in the White House.

Between news of record-breaking hospital overcrowding as the height of flu season approaches, visible climate breakdown in the form of seemingly unquenchable forest fires and the prospect of another four years of Donald Trump’s polarising politics, hopes for a better year, a better decade, can feel easily dashed.

And then you see two teenage girls on TV, studying for their Leaving Cert, with every odd stacked against them, and yet they triumph.

Amidst reruns of Mrs Brown’s Boys, recaps of a TV presenter’s career, and tributes to deceased entertainers, Christmas television seemed sorted. The unwanted chocolates, more than likely the strawberry ones, remained untouched at the end of the box as the channel hopping between the terrestrial and the streaming threw up the same predictable options.

Until it didn’t.

An unexpected documentary on RTÉ One on New Year’s night gave us the stories of Natasha Maimba and Minahil Sarfraz.

With a showdown between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin being predicted as the defining moment for the decade ahead, it can be hard to locate leadership.

And then you meet Natasha Maimba and Minahil Sarfraz — two 18-year-olds who arrived in Ireland as young children, their mothers fleeing persecution in Zimbabwe and Pakistan respectively.

The friends met in a direct provision centre in Athlone, both seeing education as their way out of this life in limbo.

And so they put their heads down and focused on the books — the documentary Leaving Limbo follows the girls’ preparation for the Leaving Cert in Our Lady’s Bower school.

There are plenty of high-fives, talk of anxiety, and eight exams in 11 days, and then the summer comes and so does the wait for the results.

During the wait, the girls talk about their futures, their hopes of a future as asylum seekers, what paths will and will not be available to them. They talk about politics and share an agreed knowing about “making a difference”.

And then the results come in.

Natasha is now studying law in DCU and Minahil is studying medicine in Galway.

This, and they’re both Unicef Ireland Youth Ambassadors for Child Migrants. This work you can follow on their shared Twitter account — @NatashaandM.

For Minahil, becoming a doctor has always been a dream. Firstly because she’ll never have to “rely on a man”, and secondly because she wants to inspire others.

“It has always been my dream to be a doctor and it is definitely living up to my expectations,” she tells viewers.

“For a girl in my country, education is the best thing for you because you get to be independent and you have yourself to rely on. I don’t want to be the girl who has to rely on a man.

I just want to inspire others who are in a similar circumstance and show them that you can fulfil your dreams.

“We want to show that no matter what you go through, if you work hard enough anything can be achieved.”

Meanwhile, Natasha’s legal studies will follow in the footsteps of her mother’s own advocacy work.

“I didn’t leave my home because I wanted to, I left my home because I needed to,” Natasha says.

“My mother has always been huge in making sure girls have education and women are able to make decisions in our country.

Because my mother stood up for women and the voices of women, she was a huge target for the government.

But it’s not just their Leaving Cert results and their college placements that make Natasha and Minahil inspiring viewing — it’s ultimately their sense of hope as opposed to victimhood, their proactive nature despite the conditions and background they’ve had to survive in, and their youthful friendship.

And at the end of the documentary you see them walking tall and proud, dressed to the nines, celebrating their achievements and themselves at their school graduation.

Inundated with ‘now and then photos’ on social media, New Year’s resolutions, and expert articles about how to make ever-lasting change, Natasha and Minahil seemed to be the only purveyors of inspiration this New Year.

And they shouldn’t have to be.

We have paid and elected leaders who did not flee persecution in the middle of their childhoods. We have paid and elected leaders who did not have to “live in limbo” while waiting on word of their right to live in Ireland.

Why is it that those who come from disadvantaged situations end up being the most inspiring?

How is that those who triumph over disadvantaged situations end up offering the rest of us a glimpse of what real leadership could look like?

This is what we should expect from our leaders — not showdowns between grown men.

We’ve a housing crisis to address, that even a three-year-old could tell you the private market will not fix. We absolutely must focus on a just transition to a carbon-neutral economy where no one, no farmer, no worker, gets left behind. We’ve childcare to sort out and the direct provision system too.

Fighting in the Dáil chamber, mudslinging on social media, and cynical headline-grabbing slogans will address none of these pressing issues in 2020, or in the years ahead.

We should not have to find hope and inspiration in two teenage asylum seekers, because our political leaders should come with the maturity and wherewithal to bring about the kind of change that Natasha and Minahil have shown they’re capable of.

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