Braille Monitor                                                   May 2010

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Remembering Rami

by Ronza Othman

Ronza OthmanFrom the Editor: Perhaps everyone can look back and identify people whose impact on his or her life was profound—people who live on, at least a little, in us. Our lives are richer for recognizing such influences and for honoring them when they have been positive. We have occasionally published profiles of such mentors in the pages of the Braille Monitor, but I cannot remember a single one with the power and brevity of the following sketch.

The author of this piece is Ronza Othman, a 2006 NFB scholarship winner and active Federationist. Her sketch first appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of the Braille Examiner, the publication of the NFB of Illinois. A version of this recollection was published in the October 2006 issue of the Braille Monitor, but we have uncovered a slightly expanded version of this story that adds important dimensions to Ronza's account.
Rami died in the spring, so it seems appropriate to reprint it at this time. Now meet Rami Atiya; you will not soon forget him:

I met Rami Atiya on the school bus when I was five years old and he was nine. Our families were from the same Arabic and suburban communities, but we hadn't met before that day. He was blind too, and to my surprise he was both willing and eager to talk about his disability. I had been raised in an atmosphere in which it was taboo to talk about my blindness. This was true in his situation as well, but he defied cultural traditions. He said his blindness was just as much a part of him as his hair color, and since no one expected him to wear a hat to cover his hair, he wouldn't pretend he wasn't blind.
Rami and I were bused to the same school district for four years. It was a magnet school district, catering to blind, vision-impaired, deaf, and hearing-impaired children from suburban Chicago. Our commute lasted about an hour each way, so Rami and I had plenty of time to talk. I was initially struck by his energy and enthusiasm. Then I was awed by his optimism and belief that any problem could be solved with a lot of hard work and a positive attitude. He was generous, kind, and absolutely hilarious. He taught me how to walk with a cane and made it look cool. Then he taught me how to use my cane to protect myself when other kids were cruel to me. He gave me the gift of being able to laugh at the world, and at myself in particular.

I transferred to a different school when I was nine, and Rami moved to Florida soon afterward. We exchanged letters for several more years and got together whenever he visited Chicago. Once we talked about how unlikely it was that either of us would ever get married, given how unreceptive Arabs were to blindness. Rami, with his usual enthusiasm, suggested we solve that problem by being one another's in-case person—if neither of us had married by the time I turned twenty-four, we'd defy everyone and marry each other.

Rami wrote me when he was sixteen to tell me that he was undergoing eye surgery. He said that there was a strong likelihood that the procedure would restore his sight. He confided that he had agreed to the surgery only because his parents wanted it so badly, but that he was otherwise willing to remain as he was. He talked about how afraid and lonely he felt. But in usual Rami fashion he told me that this experience would simply give him more material to laugh at when it was over.
I received a letter a few days after Rami's scheduled surgery, but it was from his sister. Rami had suffered a heart attack as a result of complications from the anesthesia. He had died instantly.

I will, God willing, celebrate my twenty-fourth birthday this summer. I suppose that is why I think of Rami so often, though he has never been far from my thoughts. He was the best person I've ever known, and it would please him to see how far the Arabic community has come in its acceptance of blind people. He would have enjoyed knowing that many of us are getting involved with organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, and I like to think he would be proud of me for not allowing my blindness to impede my ambitions.

I chose to study health law and healthcare administration because I believe that the poor and disabled must have access to high-quality healthcare services and protections. As blind people our job is to fight for and attain these rights. Rami taught me that I am the only one in a position to tell others what I need, and he showed me I am the only person who can prevent myself from achieving my goals. If I assist others in meeting their objectives along the way, I am simply repaying Rami's gift to me.

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