hebah profile pic

August 2019
Vienna, Austria

Hebah Nigm may be a covered young woman in Central European Austria, but she is way more than just a hijabi. I spoke to the 24-year-old teacher-to-be and recent YouTuber about her aspirations in life, growing up within two cultures and calling faith her home.

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“People think that we are just poor, little sheep that need to be rescued, which is not true at all,” Hebah says with a smirk, commenting on the way women who wear a hijab are perceived by their non-Muslim peers.

“It might be true for some, but not the majority; not the people I know, not the people I grew up with.”

Hebah is quick to cut to the chase and is not shy about voicing her opinion on what she knows and believes in. Being open and public about her Muslim faith in a predominantly Christian country like Austria does not come without its share of criticism, but Hebah does not let negativity dictate the way she decides to live her life.

“When it comes to discrimination, yes, it is difficult, but at the same, even though religion is the reason you’re discriminated against, it is also the reason that makes you fight against that discrimination. It makes you strong to resist and still continue to be on the path that you think is the right path for you.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about Muslim people, she says, is the assumption that a covered young woman is restricted in her possibilities of education and independence.

"Being religious doesn’t mean you can’t live freely," she says. "I see [my faith] as something that gives me liberation. It’s a spiritual connection that you have within you and no one can get in the way. It’s very private, and it’s liberating because of that.”

For a non-religious person like me, this statement is hard to grasp in theory, but Hebah is very approachable in her interpretation. I do, however, make the point that being religious implicits following a set of strict rules, but Nigm swiftly brings a pragmatic argument to the table that is hard to deny.

“I think we all agree that that’s humanity. We need the rules. We’re following laws wherever we go, because we need society to work in a certain way. Of course, religion is giving you rules, but they are just frames that you are working within. It doesn’t mean they are limiting you."

And Hebah is clearly everything but restricted. The first time she moved abroad was during her undergraduate studies, when she spent a semester in Switzerland within the framework of a student exchange programme. In 2018, she went to Toronto, Canada where she lived and studied for six months. Her interest in cultures and languages is deeply rooted in her childhood. Coming from an Egyptian family, she was raised bilingually in Vienna and spent a significant amount of her teenage years juggling the incessant duality of her life.

"Being religious doesn’t mean you can’t live freely."

"Being religious doesn’t mean you can’t live freely.

"Personally, I have a different connection to different languages. I grew up in a German-speaking society, which means that German was my main means of communication in my day-to-day life, at school or when I'm in society, basically. But because I grew up in an Arabic-speaking household, Arabic became my language of intimacy and emotion. So, even though my German might be better in terms of register, Arabic is closer to my heart, I would say."

When she was younger, Nigm was not aware of her bilingualism or even the sheer fact that German and Arabic are not the same language, assuming that every child shared her ways of communicating. Learning English was her epiphany - a third means of communicating than opened new doors to other manners of linguistic expression and fuelled her cultural curiosity even more.

“When I was 12, I [realised] that you can talk to certain people in their language and become part of them and their community, even though you’re technically not. That was a really big realisation that influenced everything that came after, because then I started learning French, Spanish and Turkish. It’s like an addiction. It’s kind of the circle that I’m in right now, but I like that circle.”

Though the cultural and linguistic aspects of her identity are vital to her character, there is more to her person that just that. By her own description, Hebah is a travel addict, hobbyist photographer, student and a teacher-to-be, with the latter due to become reality next summer.

WhatsApp Image 2019-08-05 at 22.00.53
WhatsApp Image 2019-08-05 at 22.00.52

Frustrated with the monotomy of the educational system that is currently in place, she is determined to become part of the solution to the problem. She strives to make education more accessible to all types of personalities and is constantly aware of her responsibility to make it happen.

"Teachers have always had a big influence on me - be it good or bad. As a student, you spend most of your day at school, so the teachers are the people you interact with other than your parents," she explains. "We have a really big educational responsibility. [As a teacher], you're basically building characters. These are words that people easily say, and sometimes we don’t realise how big of an effect we have on people [as teachers], or as human beings in general."

Through an empathetic educational approach, Hebah is hoping to guide students on their journey to unveil their potential and become "the best version of themselves."

"As a teacher, you have to help others to find what’s right for them, not what you think is right. That’s something I am missing in education everywhere."

 

Frustrated with the way the educational system is currently in place, she is determined to become part of the solution. She strives to make it more accessible to all types of personalities and is constantly aware of her responsibility to make it happen.

"Teachers have always had a big influence on me - be it good or bad. As a student, you spend most of your day at school, so the teachers are the people you interact with other than your parents," she explains. "We have a really big educational responsibility. [As a teacher], you're basically building characters. These are words that people easily say, and sometimes we don’t realise how big of an effect we have on people [as teachers], or as human beings in general."

Through an empathetic educational approach, Hebah is hoping to guide students on their journey of unveiling their potential and becoming "the best version of themselves."

"As a teacher, you have to help others to find what’s right for them, not what you think is right. That’s something I am missing in education everywhere."

 

"As a teacher, you have to help others to find what’s right for them, not what you think is right. That’s something I am missing in education everywhere."

"As a teacher, you have to help others to find what’s right for them, not what you think is right. That’s something I am missing in education everywhere."

Though confronted with incessant cultural clashes throughout the years, Nigm considers her mother to be her favourite teacher and greatest inspiration. She calls her her "best friend" but credits both of her parents for being an open book when it came to her bicultural and hence often confusing upbrinding.

“My parents always made it open to me that I was going to live a different life than them. It was essential to my upbringing. Even though it was frustrating, they would always openly tell me if they didn't know how to solve one of my problems. Sometimes I felt like it was unfair that other children could just ask their parents and they would know the answer. But as much as it might be difficult, I feel lucky to be able to develop my character in that way and become more independent. True love means [your parents] will have your back in finding out what's right for you, not what they see as right."

In addition to putting all the cards on the table, her mother taught her the importance of embracing being a role model to others - “Always act in a way that you know could influence someone, so always act in the best possible way."

In addition to studying to become a teacher, Nigm has found a way of influencing others by sharing her wisdom and reflections with the world by creating a YouTube channel that she called "Hebah's Rollercoaster".

"Some people have commented back to me that the name is really long and difficult, but you know, long and difficult - these are my thought processes, so I think it fits," she laughs.

"My goal is to share my thoughts and reflections on things, be it connected to culture, language, dentity, society or maybe even belief in general. I want to create a platform [where people can] interact and join the discussion. That's also why I want it to be a multilingual channel - to connect across borders."

Hebah embodies responsibility like no other, always aware of her actions and words, seemingly fearless of any challenge. I ask her, somewhat incongruously, if there is anything in life that she is most afraid of.

“I like to believe that there isn't. But when you have something in your life that you can hold onto, you feel like any worry you have, you have something that will protect you from that feeling. So I think my only fear is losing that security, or if I translate that, it means losing my faith - that’s my biggest fear.”

"Losing my faith is my biggest fear."

"Losing my faith is my biggest fear."

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"Someone that's scared is also easily manipulated, and I am sure nobody wants that. We're all human beings in the end. We all have the same worries, we all want the same things out of life, even if we approach them differently."

"Someone that's scared is also easily manipulated, and I am sure nobody wants that. We're all human beings in the end. We have the same worries, we all want the same things out of life, even if we approach them differently."

As the conversation organically wraps up, I ask her about her hopes for the future and in true Hebah fashion, she refers to the development she would like to see in this world.

"We all have differences, but it doesn't mean we have to be divided. In fact, we can be combined through the differences. Anything that I don't know much about is going to scare me at first - that's a human reaction. We are scared of what we don't know. But instead of being scared and isolating yourself, try and learn about it. Then try and defeat that. Now most people are scared of Muslims, but that's because you don't know anything about Muslims, except for what you might be hearing from media.

"Someone that's scared is also easily manipulated, and I am sure nobody wants that. We're all human beings in the end, and we all have the same worries, we all want the same things out of life, even if we approach them differenty. The goal is the same for all of us."

Her words remind me of a quote from a book called "A Place for Us" by the Indian-American debut author Fatima Farheen Mirza: "Be careful who you point your blame at. And remember that anytime you point your finger to accuse someone, there are three fingers beneath it, curled to point right back at you."

It is in our power to see the good in people, and it is in our power to greet them with love. At least for her part, Hebah has been doing just that.

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What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.

What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.