I was one of the blessed ones, and in the country and especially in period when I was born, this was a rare commodity. My childhood had little in common with the horror stories you hear from Eastern Europe, where kids endured poverty, food shortages, and lack of toys or affection, as I grew up in a restricted bubble, having not only the unconditional love of my parents but also an elitist upbringing that had little in common with Romania and especially Eastern Europe.
I have been brought up with the idea that I am special, which has empowered me to work harder but has also put me under immense pressure. High privileges come at a high price, as I have learned.
Growing up in a family that expects greatness while keeping the standard at an unreasonable height made me constantly question my self-worth.
I was a shy teenager who spent most of her days studying and reading, being in constant competition with my gifted brother who succeeded at everything without any effort. Despite high marks and various accomplishments, I always felt that I’m not good enough and that I’m just a remarkable fraud.
I wasn’t the prettiest one, the most athletic, the most intelligent, the most artistic, or the best at anything. Actually, I was quite mediocre and mainstream in everything I did, but what put me constantly ahead of the pack was my stamina and perseverance. Since a young age, I have understood that “fakers” like me need to work tens of times more than the naturally gifted ones, and I have undertaken this voyage willingly, continually trying to overcome my own condition and limitations.
By the time most kids were preoccupied with the hassles of first love, I had already undertaken summer courses all over Europe, studying foreign languages and arts in the countries that opened my heart towards fine arts and made me embrace a more exquisite and refined aesthetic.
A summer semester spent in Germany became my escape door toward a world of endless possibilities but also the chance to overcome my own condition. An ordered life in the suburbs of a small town in Romania scared me more than the fact that I might never find my own voice; therefore, the need for escapism grew proportionally to my age.
After departing for Germany, my destiny took a turn for the best. Living alone, away from home, far from the influence of my accomplished parents, I was able to realistically assess my qualities and embrace those talents that had been clandestine until then. I became aware of my value and stopped questioning my success or excusing my failures with childlike observations.
I was not only the master of my own life but also the sole responsibility for every success and failure, for every decision and misstep, while this newly found freedom offered me the opportunity to write my own story. A story as unique as myself.
Up until today, I have lived in fifteen countries on four different continents and have published eight books in three different languages. I have graduated from top universities, obtaining my degrees with honors, and have been employed by remarkable companies. I am actively participating in human rights campaigns, and you can find me smiling back at you from the covers of newspapers and magazines. I would say that the shy girl from a small town in Romania has done pretty well for herself, but only few know the work and commitment that are behind every accomplishment and every victory I have marked.
My life is not a success story of someone gifted with outstanding talents, but rather a story of a woman who never gives up. I have failed endless of times, my employment applications have been rejected by a significant number of companies, my books have not been selected by many literary agents, magazines have refused to publish my articles, and my heart has been broken by numerous wrong partners. There have been days when I felt like a complete failure and when my self-esteem reached unbearably low quotas, but all this has never stopped me from getting up and trying again. Today, I can argue that each failure has built my character, teaching me that my limitations are mostly self-imposed.
In a world where everyone preaches perfection and success, I encourage you to stop undervaluing the power of failure. Look at every defeat as a gateway toward success, not as a final setback.
As an African and a woman, my story may speak volumes to those who have a certain idea of what an “African woman” is or is supposed to be. For those who do not know or understand in-depth that “task,” this chapter may shed a ray of light on the challenge of going after your dreams amid the African environment.
Even though women’s engagement has improved considerably in Africa, it is no news that African society is still significantly controlled by the traditional rules, ideas, principles, beliefs, and cultures. This has made it tremendously difficult for women to be independent and to make their own choices. The culture of African society has long considered women only as “homemakers” with limited responsibilities. Most of the time, they are expected to conceive, bear children, cater to their husbands’ and children’s needs, and take care of the home and even other extended family members’ matters. They are not exactly seen as potential contributors to the growth and development of the society. Hence, education for female children is in most cases considered “useless.” Some years ago, girls were not even allowed to go to school in some parts of Nigeria.
Growing up in such an environment and in a family that could afford “just enough” discouraged me from aspiring to anything great. I used to think I would not be able to make any significant achievements in my life, but my mother always told me not to kill the hope inside me, which encouraged me inmensely.
I watched my mother fight for what she believed in—that all the children, boys or girls, are gifts from God and all deserve the same opportunity. So she ensured that all her children went to the best-rated schools. At these schools that were supposedly for the high-class society, I faced a lot of detrimental attitudes and resentment from my peers because of my low-class status. However, I did my best to be on par with the pace-setters, and this began to give me recognition and self-esteem. I concluded that hard work and determination were the weapons I needed to fight my “war.”
I later earned a scholarship to study abroad, and that was when the paradigm shift occurred. During my studies in Cuba and France, I realized that other countries were more woman-friendly and that everyone should be given a fair opportunity to serve in any capacity by the testimony of their qualifications and abilities, not by their gender. From then on, I have made it my objective to leave no stone unturned in ensuring that I achieve my set dreams in life regardless of my gender or cultural background.
I used to feel and still feel as an African woman from a third world country that the world could and should encourage women from all spheres of the world to pursue and achieve their dreams without the contempt of their culture or society. Especially those who are engulfed in the whirlwind of the many challenges women are prone to: discrimination, domestic violence, harassment, segmentation, abuse, or financial constraints. As proved in my case, it is possible to overcome all challenges!
I also wish that women pass this baton of strength, courage, boldness, determination, and, most of all, respect for other girls and women, friends, family, and colleagues. I want them to know that where there is a will, there is a way, and absolutely nothing can stop them from achieving their dreams unless they do not try. If my mother had not taught me not to give up, I would not be who I am today.
I am still on the path that leads to my life goals, but at the same time, I am thankful to God because I know I am halfway through. I have been working in a government establishment for over a decade years and I am proud of what I have achieved there so far. I have received numerous commendations and appraisals, and I still look forward to doing more. I hope my story inspires other women to do the same!
I have had what you might call an “interesting” life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now a grandmother of four, I have visited over fifty countries and have lived in the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and Argentina. I knew from an early age that a conventional suburban life was not for me.
“Coming of Age” is a story of self-discovery set amid the defining moments of the turbulent twentieth century. Because my parents’ generation had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, they were determined that their children, known as Baby Boomers, would be raised in a small, secure, and completely predictable world. As the youngest and adored child, I was a tomboy who loved to play baseball, ride horses, and sing and perform in shows. My dream as a child was to be on Broadway.
My journey began with an idyllic childhood in the conservative Eisenhower Era. I turned thirteen on the cusp of the sexual revolution and went to university during the hippie movement and Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s. I studied Speech and Theater Arts at Ohio University but soon realized I had none of the ruthless ambition required to survive as an actress or singer. To me, only kindness matters.
My quest for adventure took me to the southern Caribbean where I met and married a man whose family owned a tiny remote resort island. The family was the only permanent population of the mile-long island, and they hosted the fabulously rich and famous amid crushing poverty of the local people. Recognizing this dichotomy, I realized I could make a difference and at least try to improve their dire condition. My two sons were born there, and for ten years, my life was a balance of domesticity and adventure on St. Vincent with volcanoes, hurricanes, ships sinking, and a revolution. After returning to the US, I became a foster parent to abandoned children and had a successful career as an interior designer in a small Florida town.
But the restlessness returned, and my desire for independence ended my already difficult marriage, leaving me to raise my sons alone. I moved to Orlando and remarried again. After converting to Reform (Liberal) Judaism, I rediscovered my voice in the synagogue. I sang in the choir and often filled in for the cantor when needed. I also acted in plays and musicals in local community theater.
After divorcing again and losing my job as a designer due to the crashing economy, I became certified in ESL (English as a Second Language). With a friend, I went to Argentina on vacation and fell in love with Buenos Aires. In March of 2010, I moved there, not knowing anyone or having a place to live but soon had a job as an English teacher and a tiny rooftop apartment. I lived there for two years, having the time of my life and being completely free (and a little wild) for the first time in my life.
One day on the street corner, I saw a tall, dark, and handsome Argentine man waiting for the light to change. I smiled, he smiled, and in order to meet him, I pretended to be a lost tourist. We went for coffee and realized we both were singers. We fell in love and married in 2012. He moved to the US, and we began a successful singing duo called Duo Romantico. We then performed all around Florida, New York, and sometimes in Europe. My dream was finally realized fifty years later!
My life philosophy is taken from the Hindu Upanishads: “It is better to live your own life imperfectly than to live a perfect imitation of someone else’s life.”
If I have any message for women, it’s these three things:
One: Getting older is not a curse but a blessing that is denied to many. Besides, it is the only way you get to enjoy your grandchildren without having parental responsibility! Those gray hairs, wrinkles, and saggy thighs are the price you pay for the wisdom and self-knowledge that only comes from walking around the planet for decades.
Two: Although being a mother is extremely wonderful, it shouldn’t define you wholly. Motherhood can consume you so utterly that you run the risk of disappearing inside the soccer mom or ballet mom. But living your dreams through your little ones is unwise. They came here to fulfill their dreams, not yours. Juggling children and a career is challenging but feeds our dual desires. Motherhood allows you to be part of something eternal as your genetic material and what you instill in your progeny lives forever. But a career lets you explore the part of yourself that exists in the now and facets of yourself and your power are revealed only in that arena.
Three: That you should never give up on your dreams because they can become true even after fifty years. As a five-year-old listening to the audience’s laughter or a sixty-five-year-old listening to the laughter, I have come full circle. Many people think performers go on stage for the applause and adulation. That, although lovely, does not thrill me as much as moving people deeply with my voice. If I can make you forget your pain for even a few minutes, it is then my greatest joy.
Life is full of challenges, and this chapter reminds us all that there’s hope in everything. Regardless of where you were born and what limitations you have encountered/may be currently experiencing, you can still make it.
I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My country is situated in the heart of Africa with a population of over eighty million. Congo is the world’s wealthiest country concerning natural resources and yet one of the poorest in term of GDP per capita. It is blessed with natural resources including cobalt, copper, niobium, tantalum, industrial and gem diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, uranium, and coal, as well as petrol and timber. However, history confirms that its population has not benefited from the country’s abundance of resources. Also, due to the outbreak of fighting in August of 1998, millions of lives have died, millions displaced, women and children raped, and many lives have fled to safety.
Due to unfortunate circumstances as a result of tribal and political conflicts and other ongoing calamities causing devastation and extreme poverty around the country, my family was forced to leave the country in pursuit of peace in 2000s, which later paved the way for us to make Australia our new home.
I have experienced enormous challenges from a young age including lacking the very necessities like food, safety, and security, but I refuse to allow my past obstacles to limit my future. As an ambitious, educated, and high achieving young woman of African descent, I encourage you to never give up. The journey has made me resilient and has been a channel for me to become a voice for the voiceless, but the reality is, getting to where I am requires hard work, sacrifice, resilience, persistence, and passion for making a difference in my life and in the life of others.
It is distressful to know that in the 21st century, there are still too many people living in oppression and living lives that are shattered by different predicaments. So through this chapter, I share my life journey to revive the hope of other women who are living in devastating circumstances, and I also hope to shed lights into the political dilemma the Congolese nation have struggled with for more than a century.
Today, people call me a successful social designer and innovator. At the age of only twenty-something, I have visited more than thirty countries. I have led many successful initiatives, projects, and events gathering hundreds of people around the world, from Lithuania to Thailand, from Algeria to the United States.
But like everything else, these labels do not say who I am, how many times I have had to fail in order to succeed, or what problems I have had to overcome. They do not mention how many times I have felt trapped and didn’t know how to get out from those traps. Life has created many challenges to teach me valuable lessons, which now finally make sense.
Like any other person, I have had ups and downs in life. There are times when I cry days and nights and others when I laugh from evening until the sunrise. What I always do is believe and trust in life, hoping that after a dark night comes a bright day. Having this viewpoint has helped me overcome challenges and dark periods, enjoy and be present in every minute, and become who I am today.
In this chapter, I am going to talk about what I have learned and the factors that have helped me succeed in what I have been doing. I hope that my story will empower and inspire other people to follow their dreams and always keep the faith in themselves alive.
I will start with my early childhood memories in an industrialized post-Sovietic Lithuanian city with an alcoholic father and a mother who was sick with depression. In this part, I will share my experience of what it means for the development of a child to grow up in an unhealthy environment. I always lacked love and experienced things and situations that a six-year-old child should never be in. I will also touch upon the Soviet Union’s influence on people’s mentality and what it means for me to have been born in 1989 and to be the so-called ‘‘child of independence‘.”
Then, I will bring you into my teenagehood, the time when I was rebelling against the whole world, abusing alcohol, choosing wrong partners, falling into a six-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia, and attempting to suicide. Fortunately, my grandmother’s care, love, and encouragement saved me and slowly fostered in me the high-achiever attitude.
We will travel abroad together and will look into how, in my early twenties, my Erasmus+ students exchange and master’s studies in Hungary helped me find peace within myself. Those experiences allowed me to forgive my parents, releasing me from the prison of anger I had held myself in for twenty years. I will share with you the lessons I have learned from my travels and from people I have met, and will show you how I have found my own path to leadership and human hearts.
I will finish my chapter with my move to Sweden, which has been a roller-coaster ride.
Even though all these periods of my life are different, they have one common feature that I believe has influenced my success: hope. Hope for a brighter future, hope for sincere and pure love, hope for being able to study, hope for finding my own path and being able to pursue the career of my passion, hope to be healthy, hope to find happiness and peace within myself. Whatever I have been doing or wherever I have been going, I have always carried hope with me. That hope has helped me become who I am today.
I hope that my story will light the belief and faith in you, your life, and the world surrounding you and give you the strength to never let anyone put you down or destroy your dreams.
“I want to be an inventor” was a sentence I exclaimed when I was a little girl born in Saudi Arabia. Little did I know that this sentence would define my path as an Arab Muslim woman.
1994 was when I first opened my eyes. Before I was able to speak, the world had already decided for me that I am a woman and that I cannot study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), because that’s only for boys. Luckily, I had the support of my parents when it came to pursuing my dreams. They are both Saudi, but they are from different parts of the Kingdom. My father comes from the more liberal part of Saudi Arabia, while my mom comes from the more conservative part. Their marriage was unconventional. Their audaciousness and tenacity to stand against society and join together to create a family is definitely what has given me the courage and empowerment to break down all of my obstacles.
Muslim Saudi women like me are often misrepresented in the media. So I am here to tell my story with my own voice, not through sound bites or a caption. I may have faced many challenges as a woman in a conservative society, but I have also had a lot of opportunities.
I grew up quite sheltered. I had an active childhood where I used to run around with my cousins and play all day. It was only when I finished high school and wanted to become an engineer that being a woman was suddenly the only thing that defined me. I did not let go of my dreams and persisted on entering one of the most prestigious universities for women in my country and the only one with the field of electrical and computer engineering for women.
I was determined to study engineering, so it eventually became my bachelor’s degree major. Nevertheless, throughout my years of study, I found myself excelling in business and entrepreneurship. So I set a new dream and prepared myself for a new chapter with new challenges.
Having the opportunity to travel and meet different people from different walks of life, races, religions, and nationalities has given me a broad perspective on life but also a well-defined one for myself. I have learned that even though we each have our own story to tell, we can all easily connect by sharing our hopes, dreams, and ambitions.
My greatest concern in life has been facing the world as a Muslim Saudi woman, carrying the heavy baggage of this label. But at the same time, I have had to deal with my own prejudice that I have tried to remove on my journeys. I have learned to never judge a person until I have walked in his or her shoes or a situation until I have tried it. I don’t know what my next chapter in life will be. All I know is that, even if I feel lost from time to time, I will always be heading toward the right direction.
The short stories that I have included in my chapter should be read as prose and should be thought of as a sensation of experience, as a reality that can be encountered in any part of the world, almost like seasons of fragility, achievements, falls and rises, smiles and tears.
I was born in Zagreb, Croatia. From an early age, I performed for my family and neighbors, while creating tickets, drawing posters, and sewing clothing. One day I would dress up like a pirate, then the other day like Mary Poppins. I would sing and jump like I was going to conquer the world. My dream was to perform at Broadway—I felt extremely attracted to those majestic shows. When nobody was home, I would steal a microphone from my dad, who was a musician, and would perform songs from famous musicals, pretending I could also sing them in any language.
When I was seven, my father suffered from a brain tumor, which left severe repercussions on his body. We had to teach him how to walk and talk again. The way he never stopped loving life and being humble during his illness was a rarity. My mother took care of us and decided to leave her job to be full time with my father and me, at the time when Croatia was going through a war. There were not many other options for us than to fight and survive. A few years later, my mother also got sick, which made one side of her body paralyzed. Again, we fought her illness with the same zeal as we had done with my father’s. I was fifteen at that time. My dream was to travel the world and sing, maybe because of the circumstances I lived in. Music was everything to us because when it stopped, life became difficult. Despite all the obstacles, my mother always made sure that I was well educated and taught me that we should always face life with a smile and we should go for what we dreamed of, no matter how impossible it may seem. My parents fought for life with their illnesses, and I started to fight for my dreams—fly for my dreams, grab them, feel them and embrace them. Because life is about living the moments!
My dream started to become a reality as soon as I challenged myself to change constantly. Since my university years, I have lived in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Mexico City, London, New York, and now in Beijing. Through the diversity and differences of people I have met and grown to know, I have learned a lot about myself. In my stories, I will speak about the moments that have moved me, the people that have touched me, the landscapes that have empowered me, and the situations that have changed me. My current dream is to leave a trace and express my previous experiences in objects of beauty. I am now a singer-songwriter and a jewelry designer. I left my promising career in architecture in my early thirties, and since then I have turned to singing and creating. Through my music and art, I want to encourage people to find they own freedom and expression to make a beautiful world for themselves and those around them. I have found my meaning in music, which has a great power to change people. The songs that I write connect me to direct emotions that all of us feel in one way or another—the emotions that scatter through space if given a visual context.
In my stories, I have captured my moments of ups and downs. I have expressed my own fragility through tears, that sometimes fall like little berries, sometimes appear through smiles—just like rainbows popping up during a sunshower, each time the tears I shed lead to a small change within me. Through the awareness of my fragility, I have come closer to myself.
The stories we draw might not always be clear, even to ourselves, but as we go forward, as we keep on moving, time will clarify them. The dreams still enchant us, and if we think of them, the hidden laws of nature will bring us closer to them each day. As we search for our dreams, they also search for us.
We tend to put labels on ourselves and others to simplify our life. At wars, it’s “our heroes” against “the enemies.” In the society, it’s “women” vs. “men,” “children” vs. “adults,” “rich” vs. “poor,” and so on. In this chapter, I will reveal the dangerous side of labeling by telling the stories of my grandmother as a civilian in a war-torn country, my mother as a woman in a patriarchal society, and me as an immigrant.
I come from a country where sacrificing herself for her husband and her children is a must-have virtue expected from any woman. When I was a little girl, my grandmother and mother persistently reminded me that as a woman, it was my duty to be hard-working and to endure all the sufferings that my fate was going to bring me. Because in Vietnam, it is believed that a person’s life is determined by their fate.
Many Vietnamese women are taught to be dependent on their husbands and their families, and so was my mother. Shortly after my parents got divorced, she decided to move to the Czech Republic to live with her family, that had moved to Europe before the fall of communism, and she took my little brother and me with her. We settled in a small town in a region that had once flourished with iron and steel industries, but now was battling high unemployment rates and poverty due to the closure of mines after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Local people saw the hard-working immigrants as a threat to the job market.
My years growing up in that small town were a battle between trying to blend into the Czech culture and society while being an obedient, traditional Vietnamese girl at home. On the one hand, as I was one of the very few non-European students in that town, children in and out of school would not lose a chance to ridicule me in front of others. What made this worse was the well-accepted discrimination of non-citizens, as even some adults would remind me in public that I was “different” from them. On the other hand, growing up in a Vietnamese family meant that I had a fixed set of responsibilities to fulfill in my role as a female and the eldest child. Moreover, I felt a lack of affection and understanding from my family since Vietnamese seldom, if ever, explicitly express any kind of feelings even to the closest people in their life.
Growing up under such circumstances, I was always craving love and recognition. I eagerly participated in all kinds of competitions during my secondary education, hoping that all the prizes and accolades would make my mom, who would have frowned upon a grade B, proud. I felt happy on those rare days when I arrived home without having been mocked on the street. I thought my life would be fulfilled if someone fell in love with me. My first broken-heart love story, which commenced like a fairy tale on the mesmerizingly romantic Champs Elysées Avenue in Paris, made me realize that I had been letting others define my values and state of well-being.
My full awakening occurred during my university studies. I had an opportunity to spend a semester in Argentina, the Latin American country where radiant and warm-hearted people helped me see that almost nothing in this world is purely black and white. This discovery fueled my travel bug. I changed from an obedient and shy teenage girl to a “rebellious” young woman who started to define her own values and who learned to live life on her own terms. Liberating my “ugly and disease-like” freckled face from tons of makeup and holding my “futile” third-world passport in my hand, I began a journey that eventually helped me overcome prejudice and bias against me and others who face the same resentment.
One international study or work trip after another helped me put together the puzzle pieces that had previously been missing from my life. At the least expected place and time, I met the love of my life, to whom I am boundlessly thankful for showing me the side of the world that had previously been a mystery to me. Having the courage to leave my comfort zone has enabled me to embrace the beauty in differences. There are always good and bad things about every person and every culture, and by acknowledging this fact, I have acquired the best from each of the places I have lived in and have left the negative traits behind.
After years of traveling and living around the world, the shame I felt about myself and my origin—instilled in me by others’ prejudice—has been replaced by pride in my uniqueness. During my journeys, there are still times when I encounter racism, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination. Nevertheless, they now simply remind me that the primary source of all the hatred in the world is ignorance and fear of the unknown.
I was born to be average and was expected to be ordinary. I was smart enough to get by but not exceptionally talented. All I had was my personality, persistence, and unprecedented optimism—the qualities I have nurtured. And while family, societal stereotypes, and traditional dogmas can be a good excuse not to move forward, they do not make much of a motive to give up.
I grew up in a small town by the seaside in Bulgaria. Born as a post-communist baby in a country undergoing a transition from socialism to capitalism, I knew little about the outside world. In fact, there was little to be known at the time. I still remember the empty grocery stores, the despair in my parents’ eyes, the defeat in people’s faces. Even so, I failed to understand why a whole nation would so effortlessly give in.
Going to Western Europe at the age of eighteen changed my perceptions. Until then, I had not imagined that a world where people rarely had financial worries, could choose what to pursue, commit to their passions, and still be happy if they failed did exist. Until then, I had never pictured that life would be much different from a constant struggle of trying to explain my eagerness and perseverance for more than there was, that same eagerness that was so untypical for my country.
Working around the globe for the next six years, I became aware of the power of choice. I found happiness in the decisions I took as well as in people’s eyes and their reflections. The world became small. Suddenly, I no longer needed to justify my every step of the way. Suddenly, no one was interested in knowing why I had not settled down yet or had not devoted to building a family at the age of twenty-five.
So here I am now. I still have not made it very far financially, and I doubt I ever will. Against all society dogmas, I am still not married but as happy as ever because, despite everyone and everything, I have learned how to make my own choices. Some decisions have proved to be more uncomfortable than others, but these are normally the ones that change our lives. So make them today.