New Brunswick

Young newcomer's speech about refugee experience wins top prize at student competition

She took top prize in a provincial public speaking competition called Speak Out. Back in Sri Lanka, she had the chance to speak at the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Grade 8 student Ruhamma Zaheeb was middle school winner in oratory at provincial Speak Out contest

Grade 8 student Ruhamma Zaheeb arrived in Saint John last summer with her family, after living as a refugee in Sri Lanka. (Sarah Trainor/CBC)

A young newcomer to New Brunswick is trying to spread the word about the refugee experience.

And audiences are paying attention.

Ruhamma Zaheeb, 13, took one of the top prizes in a provincial public speaking competition called Speak Out held in Fredericton.

She and her family lived in Sri Lanka as refugees for several years after fleeing Pakistan for safety reasons. They resettled in Saint John last summer, via the United Nations.

Zaheeb, now a Grade 8 student at Beaconsfield School in west Saint John, gave a personal account of "what refugees go through, the problems they face, and what we do to make their lives miserable." 

Zaheeb's winning speech explained the pain and real life experiences behind the term, refugee. (Zaheeb Nasir/Submitted)

First, she delivered a speech in a school-wide competition.

"It was just what a refugee faces. Discrimination, persecution and bullying. We came from Sri Lanka in search of safety and a peaceful life," Zaheeb said in an interview Monday with Information Morning Saint John.

"Once I started writing, it started to come together and make sense, and it was everything I faced, so it was kind of easy to write it."

That speech earned her a trip to the district contest and later the provincial finals, where she was named the middle school winner in the oratory category.

Her winning speech described the challenges she faced as a child refugee.

"For me, my father is my superhero, and when a daughter sees tears in her father's eyes, inside her heart, the voice inside is saying, 'Why is my superhero weak?'" Zaheeb said.

"My father was getting weak because of what he was facing. He was worried about me and my sister, about us and our future."

Zaheeb says she wants to write more speeches and compete at a national level with the message that refugees deserve better. (Nasir Zaheeb/Submitted)

Zaheeb had some prior public speaking experience.

In Sri Lanka, she spoke at an event hosted by the United Nations Refugee Agency, known as UNHCR, as part of World Refugee Day in 2016. She spoke before a crowd of about 1,000 Sri Lankan refugees, ambassadors, government officials of Sri Lanka, and UN staff.

'It broke my heart'

That was the first time her father, Zaheeb Nasir, heard her account of the "mental agony behind the term refugee," he said.

Many were moved to tears.

"It broke my heart," said Nasir. "It's a common word, but she explains the pain behind it, the losses. It's her personal experience more than a speech."

"As parents, we tried not to share our pains and stresses with our children, but they are very smart, they feel it. They absorb it."

Zaheeb said she hopes to write more speeches and compete at a national level with the message that refugees deserve better.

"Refugees aren't from another planet, they are normal humans like you and me," she said. "The world is what titled them. They were not born as refugees.

"People often think of refugees as terrorists. I want them to understand they are the product of terrorism and extremism … I want to bring awareness to the whole world about what refugees are, and who they actually are."

With files from Information Morning Saint John