“God does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear.” (Quran 12:21)
Pati, Indonesia — 1992
My little weak body was connected to an incubator. The prognosis was not good. After struggling for nearly twelve hours, my mother, a very strong woman, gave birth to me. It is very difficult to imagine what she and my father felt after learning that their long awaited baby had been born different from most other children. On a beautiful day when the sun should have shone brightly on the future of a newborn boy my parents were told by the doctor not to expect me to survive. Even if I was to survive they predicted deafness and a lifetime of hardship.
That day was the beginning of a journey that continues to be larger-than-life. I, Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, was born with physical impairments. A lack of oxygen during my mother’s long labor had deprived me eyes of the normal ability to make tears. Because I lacked the normally functioning soft-motoric nerves I was also without the ability to use my hands to perform certain activities. This included movements many take for granted, such as handwriting. My future was bleak.
It is indeed difficult to imagine what my parents felt at that time. However, I believe that it was not my physical limitations that frightened them, but rather the future. Were they prepared to face a future where their son would face long and wearisome struggles? It would be different lifestyle and difficult to attain happiness.
Semarang, Indonesia — 1996
Time passed very quickly. Four years after we were told I would not live my parents are jubilant I have survived. God, the Giver of life, has preserved me thus far. Although my tongue is not able to utter words normally like other children, I am ready and eager to go to school.
It was the desire of my father that I attend a normal public school. Unfortunately, many of them rejected me, citing the lack of experience and ability to accommodate students with physical difficulties. I was often the first child with physical impairments to apply to some of these schools and they had no idea how to handle my situation. Many of these schools assumed that because of my disabilities I might also have impaired intelligence.
Fortunately, I have strong and dedicated parents. They sacrificed themselves to get me into a regular school. Unfortunately, during that time there were no protection laws or organizations supporting individuals with disabilities in my country. This would be new territory and we were filled with uncertainty.
Facing difficulties can make one stronger and the struggles my parents went through eventually bore fruits. It wasn’t too long before we received news that I was accepted to Al Azhar Islamic School, one of the most prestigious Islamic schools in the country.
Again and again I uttered thanks to the Owner of the universe. I had no idea what might happen to me if I was unable to be accepted in a regular school. Perhaps special needs schools would be my only option. In reality, special schools are not very “special” for those with disabilities. Most of them have no appropriate curriculum. Instead of helping people with different abilities move forward, they often subdue them in order to “manage” their development. This results in impeding learning and education.
Turning back the clock to my first day of school I recall the beautiful smiles on my parents’ faces. The tireless struggle they have gone through has been rewarded. They are finally seeing their son able to go to a public school. But my academic journey was not always smooth. It was a continual struggle to get my needs accommodated. Allowing me the use of a computer or being provided with a writer were basic things I needed in order to accomplish the same outcome as other students.
Recounting the details of my school years is distressing. To be honest, from the depths of my heart, I have not wanted to relive this pain. At first I thought I should bury those stories. But upon reflection, I realized they are not sad stories. They are encouraging tales about my strengths and successes in fighting the many challenges I have faced. I have always desired to realize my dreams. These stories can and should serve as an inspiration. People with a similar situation to mine can benefit from the wisdom I’ve gained from dealing with my struggles. This story needs to be heard by those in despair. It should be heard by everyone in this world, so that people with disabilities will see how they, too, can persevere and achieve their life dreams.
There were many days when I was afraid of going to school and I almost always went home in tears. I was rarely seen in the school yards; I preferred to stay in class during break time and came late to school in the morning to avoid a terrible agony. I was regularly bullied by other students, mocked, laughed at and frequently pushed to the ground.
Those memories have continued to punish my heart. But the worst bullying I experienced was not when I was kicked to the ground or called different names. Rather, it was when people questioned my ability to achieve my dreams. I remember a particularly painful experience. It happened the first day of my third year at elementary school.
The teacher asked each of us a question. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A very simple and typical question to elementary school kids. Each of us had to stand up and answer the question, followed by applause from our classmates. With passion and confidence, some of my classmates told of their desires to become doctors and engineers; others wanted to become pilots and firefighters. When my turn came I stood up, and with no less passion and confidence proclaimed, “I want to study abroad and I want to become a teacher.” But instead of cheers and claps I heard laughter and ridicule. To this day one cruel question lingers in my mind, “How can you become a teacher when you can’t even write on the board?”
I have always tried to stay strong, realizing that perhaps my experiences were tests containing wisdom and lessons from God. God is most just to His servants. I have been blessed with a great father and mother. Every time I knock at the door to our house they greet me with the most beautiful smiles. These two persons will always say, “Never let your disabilities win.” Surely my miseries at school were hard on them and weighed heavy on their shoulders. Nevertheless, they would always find ways to assure me and cheer me up so that I did not have to dwell on my worries.
Semarang, Indonesia — 2004
Despite my disabilities God gave me a great gift of health. I was able to continue my education and in 2004 I completed my elementary school and continued on to middle school. Even though bullying was still encountered now and then, my heart had become strong and I could face the harassment without tears. I repeatedly motivated myself to achieve beyond my other classmates. The effort and hard work paid off and eventually I achieved equality with my classmates. I even won a speech competition, was chosen as the best student, and graduated with satisfactory results.
Gradually my self-confidence grew. I was pleased to see my father and mother smile as they reaped the fruits of their long and arduous struggle. That fruit was the fact that I was no longer perceived as a weak and “limited” individual. Their tireless struggle succeeded in breaking down all my “limits.”
Doha, Qatar — 2007
My family was transferred to Qatar, a small island country in the Arabian Gulf. It was a new beginning for me and my family, but sure enough, an episode of my old story was once more repeated. I had to attend a new school and this presented the same challenges I had experienced back home. Again I was refused entry to several schools. My parents and I found this very disheartening. I had come so far, yet now it appeared all progress had been in vain. A thought even came to my father to send me back to Indonesia.
But what we try to accomplish on our own is insignificant compared to what can be done by God, the Controller of Everything. So, after a long and arduous struggle, I was finally accepted to a school in Doha.
It is true that our struggles will only stop when we die. It is still my time for living, and evidently this was a time for more challenges. Going to a new school in a different country presented another type of struggle. I was in a completely new environment and among people of different cultures and languages. It is true that I’d dealt with the cruelness from others before, but now I was a stranger in this land. My confidence seemed to evaporate. All the past experiences of being bullied stirred up fear and anxiety in my new surroundings, especially whenever encountering strangers.
Fortunately, my fears were unfounded, particularly of facing bullying. Days passed and eventually I no longer harbored anger and hatred against my bullying classmates. My journey became much more pleasant. Besides studying normal subjects at school, I learned new languages and experienced new cultures. More importantly, I was making new friends. Ironically, I discovered real happiness after moving thousands of kilometers away from a place I called home.
Doha, Qatar — 2010
An amazing event transpired. A man born without the capability to make tears, without normal functioning nerves, received a full scholarship to continue his studies at Qatar University. “Unbelievable!” my father exclaimed. This was indeed an incredible gift from God. I had reached a turning point in my life and my hopes and dreams were coming true.
I had long desired to become a person full of meaning and significance for my family and the people surrounding me. I could not have achieved this without help. My debt of gratitude can never be repaid to my friends in college who were always there whenever I felt down and weak. They supported me in doing whatever endeavors I wished to achieve, ready to sacrifice their time to take me wherever I needed to go. Here was true friendship and brotherhood. After 18 years, I finally understood and enjoyed its meaning. A sincere friend does not ask for anything in return. Unconditional love and support is rare in this world. My friendships are something I will always remember and treasure.
Good companionship helped me to move forward. I now understood how it felt to become a complete individual. Consequently, my self-confidence grew and my grades dramatically improved. I began to write for local and international outlets. With almost perfect scores, I was one of the fastest to graduate from the university.
Of all the happiness I felt, the greatest was seeing my father and mother’s wide smiles when their son received an award from the King of Qatar. This was a nearly indescribable joy. Hard work has its rewards, but this experience was nothing short of miraculous.
Manchester, United Kingdom — 2014
A letter arrived at my house. I stood in the doorway of my room and heard my father excitedly mentioning my name several times to my mother. Out of curiosity, I entered the living room to see what was going on. He approached me with a broad smile on his face, then hugged and congratulated me with the news that I had been accepted to continue my studies in England. This would achieve one of my great dreams, to pursue further education and to explore yet another side of God’s vast and beautiful earth.
I left the hot desert of the Middle East for cold and windy Europe. This was yet another new episode in my life, one which hopefully will be a stepping stone to the final phase of my journey, to become the teacher I aspire to be. It is here that I have met and mingled with the world’s brightest scholars. I have made new friends, many with their own impressive stories of struggle.
Today, I realize that God never actually gives me limitations. Since I was born I have been given countless opportunities. These opportunities, often disguised as difficulties, hold their own kind of perfection. My hands feel much stronger, my tongue is lighter, and my nerves seem to work again. I have discovered abilities only now realized after more than two decades since I entered this beautiful world.
Life has taught me about struggle. A struggle which should be done by everyone, regardless of their condition. Through this struggle I have learned the real meaning of work and what it means to become a complete individual.
Always remember God never burdens us beyond our capabilities. He helps us meet every challenge and gives us the strength and ability to overcome those challenges.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat,
Manchester — Winter 2015