Southwest High School senior Salma Mohamed was born without the ability to hear.
Looking at her, however, no one would ever know the unimaginable obstacles Mohamed had to overcome to get where she’s at now.
Those who know her said she has one of those smiles that can light up a room.
Just months away from graduating high school, Mohamed will soon embark on her life as an adult in America.
But the path wasn’t easy.
Born in Somalia, Mohamed came to America when she was 12 years old, with her mother and her five siblings.
She did not attend school in Africa, and said the transition to Wisconsin was a monumental change.
She couldn’t communicate, and her scope of language up to that point was limited to what lip reading she could manage around the house.
Upon her family’s arrival in Wisconsin, Mohamed was enrolled at Lombardi Middle School and began her journey to find her “voice.”
“I had a teacher there, Mrs. (Amy) Curran, who taught me,” Mohamed said with the help of American sign language interpreter, Lisa Andreas. “I didn’t know any sign language at that point. I was really curious about hearing aids, as I had never seen any technology like that before, so I was interested in learning how to communicate and in using this new technology.
Finding her ‘voice’
Lauren McElrone, Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) program teacher, works out of a classroom on the second floor at Southwest High School.
This classroom, Mohamed said, is her favorite part of being a Trojan.
“This room,” she said, gesturing to the table in front of her, when asked what she loves most about her school.
Mohamed said she loves to write and McElrone’s room is where she’s able to do that, clearly comfortable in the space.
“Mrs. McElrone explains the English language to me very well,” Salma said. “I’m learning how to make sentences correctly. When I first came to America, I couldn’t write English well, and I would make a lot of mistakes. (Mrs. McElrone) helps me correct a lot of those mistakes and my English is getting better.”
Mohamed’s situation presented some unique challenges, but her teachers agree she’s made tremendous progress.
McElrone said the degree of difficulty Mohamed had to deal with as she learned to communicate was “way harder.”
“Language develops for your brain when you’re a baby up until around two years old, and if you miss that window, it’s very hard to learn,” McElrone said. “And Salma was learning a base-language of sign language and English as a written language at the same time. Plus, at home they speak a mix of English and Somali, and she doesn’t speak Somali at all. It makes it very difficult.”
In spite of the challenges, McElrone said Mohamed has made tremendous progress and is confident in her ability to communicate going forward beyond Southwest.
“I feel like, it takes what, six or seven years to be able to use a language conversationally?” McElrone said. “And maybe three or four years in, you could really see the light bulb go on for Salma. She was able to use it socially and now academically, she’s making some gains as far as being able to apply it.”
The high school experience
In a smile-inducing display of solidarity, some of Mohamed’s classmates have taken it upon themselves to learn a bit of sign language in order to better communicate with their nonverbal friend.
“It’s cool,” Mohamed said. “I can socialize with them and chat with them. Some of them are deaf. Some of them are hearing. There are two teachers here who offer sign language as a foreign language. So they take the American sign language class and learn how to sign. Then I have more options to have friends who are hearing or deaf, and I can socialize with so many more people. It’s so much fun for me. I feel more included.”
Add playing softball to the list of positives Mohamed has found at Southwest.
“I love it. I started when I was a freshman,” Mohamed, an outfielder and self-described “so-so” hitter, said. “I want to add extra activities. I want to be included in things. I also have all of these new friends, because of the girls on the softball team. We support each other, and they sign with me. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose.”
The path ahead
Thanks to the help of her teachers and fellow students, Mohamed will graduate in a few months.
Looking to the future, she said she looks forward to getting to work doing something she enjoys.
She said she’s already participating in training for a career in hairstyling and is hopeful she’ll land a job in a local salon.