The Rohingya refugee girl who found freedom through surfing

June 25, 2021 | Surfing
Samira Surfs: the story of Rohingya refugee girl who fled the war and found surfing in Bangladesh | Illustration: Fahmida Azim

If there's one sport that can really make a difference in the fight against all sorts of discrimination, it is surfing.

"Samira Surfs" is an illustrated novel in verse inspired by a true story that illuminates the plight of Muslim Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh through a young girl's journey as she finds peace and empowerment in a Cox's Bazar surf club.

Samira's character takes inspiration from the true story of a group of Bangladeshi surfer girls who have defied the traditional expectations for women in their culture to take on the sport.

In 2012, local surfer Rashed Alam began teaching a handful of young girls, who sold goods on the beach to make money for their families, how to surf.

Now, despite opposition from many in the local community, his surf club for boys and girls boasts 55 members.

Author Rukhsanna Guidroz's experience as a journalist informs this thoughtfully researched depiction of everyday life for Muslim Rohingya refugees in 2012.

Guidroz's sparkling verse, aided by stunning illustrations from Fahmida Azim, shines a light on the oppression of this group, a topic largely unexplored in literature for young readers.

Samira Surfs: a novel by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

A Surfer of the World

Guidroz also draws from her experience as a surfer - she describes herself as an "advanced beginner" - to add nuance and believability to her portrayal of Samira's early moments in the water.

An informative illustrated summer read ideal for reluctant readers, "Samira Surfs" offers a look into a young Rohingya girl's journey from isolation and persecution to sisterhood and from fear to power.

Rukhsanna Guidroz was born in Manchester, England, to a Persian-Indian father and a Chinese mother.

After working as a journalist for Hong Kong's The Standard newspaper, she went on a windsurfing trip to Hawaii that changed her life.

Guidroz fell in love with the tropical enchantment of the islands and made Maui her home.

The following excerpt is from "Samira Surfs," a book published by Penguin Random House on June 29, 2021. Available at www.penguinrandomhouse.com.

Tiny Whisper

After dinner, Baba goes for a walk
by himself.
He no longer needs Mama's help.
His back is better,
and he has even returned to work.
Ever since Mama found her notepad,
she spends her evenings
looking through its pages.
I've learned that numbers can lead to
memories.

A candle burns close by,
bright enough for Khaled to write,
dim enough for me to fall asleep.
But I don't want to.
The surf contest is on my mind.

I've been brave before.
Like the time Sahara dared me
to open a coconut.
Baba told me to ask first
and he'd split one open
with his machete
so we wouldn't get hurt.
But I took the biggest one
I could find
and smashed it against
the sharp corner of a rock
over and over until
a spray of sweet coconut water
covered our faces,
and we collapsed in laughter.
Today, I felt the old me flicker,
the one who loved adventures.

I imagine myself
being so free
that I take to the water
to ride a wave.
And I know
what I feel
in this moment,
I cannot unfeel.

A New Language

I put our morning reading aside.
"Tell me more about surfing,"
I ask my brother.
Khaled takes the magazine
from under his pillow
and turns to pages that show
pictures of a world unknown to me.
I see surfers on sea-glass blue waves,
beaches that look nothing like Cox's Bazar,
giant monster waves,
long boards, short boards.
And girls!
Lots of girls.
Every picture comes alive
as he explains.

Drop in,
bottom turn,
cut back.
I am learning a fourth language:
the language of surf!
Rolling in my mouth,
curling around my tongue.
When I spit them out,
I'm sounding, talking, feeling
more and more
like a surfer.

Names for parts of the board
bring smiles, too.
Nose, tail, leash like it's a puppy.
Rails like it's a train on tracks.
Deck like it's a boat.
Fin like it's a fish.

And everything Khaled shares with me
is sealed in my mind
to be remembered forever,
long after the magazine goes back
under his pillow.

Samira Surf: Girls Invited | Illustration: Fahmida Azim

My Voice

GIRLS INVITED
The letters, big and bright,
make impressions on my back
as I lay awake.
Baba told Khaled to put the flyer away.
Is it bad of me to hide it
under my sleeping mat?
I say no! What harm can it do?
It's just paper and hope.

To make sure I'm doing it right,
I look at Khaled's magazine,
then try myself.

I flip over.
With my head lifted,
I paddle until my arms feel sore
and my neck grows stiff.

Cluck, cluck, cluck.
Our chickens outside tease me.
I can't help but laugh
at them,
at myself.

A little voice in my head
that sounds like the younger,
stubborn Samira
pipes up loud and clear.
You can't give up, she insists.
Why not have fun
and play with the waves?

Treat in the Market

Mama takes a black comb
and pulls its teeth though my hair,
making my scalp go tingly.
Next comes a gentle scrape across,
front to back,
with the end of the comb.
She makes a part,
her fingers work busily
at one side of my head,
then the other,
until I have two braids.

"Come to the market with me," she says.
"I need help bringing food home.
And see if Aisha wants to come."

We make a quick stop by Aisha's house.
Her dada is happy his granddaughter
has an invitation.
The corners of Mama's eyes smile
when she meets him.
Just like mine did
the time I first met him.

At the market we are pressed between
bright colors,
sharp smells,
and the hum of voices.

Mama hands a seller some coins.
Even in March, the air makes
flames against our skin.
Cool mango lassi
would be refreshing.
But soft roti would be filling.

My grumbling belly wants both.
Aisha decides on lassi, and I follow.
Tickets to heaven!

I hear foreign languages
spoken by aid workers
and news photographers
gathering at postcard and souvenir stands.
They buy seashells,
T-shirts, and maps of Cox's Bazar.
Will Khaled meet them
at the café? I wonder.

A snake of surfboards
weaves through the market.
I know this snake!
It's a group of boys balancing boards
on their heads.
Smiling surfer faces meet ours.

We step aside.
"So heavy." Mama makes a tsk-tsk sound.
"And the water's so dangerous.
Your Nani and Nana..."
Mama puts a finger to her lips
to stop the flow of words.

Aisha whispers in my ear.
"They remind me of Nadia, Rubi, and Maya."
I pretend not to hear,
for Mama is close by.
Aisha!
If Mama discovers my friends are surfers,
she'll know I want to be one, too.

My delicious lassi
turns sour.
My colorful market
fades to black and white.
I would trade them both
to take a risk on my terms
to be with my sisters
to be a kid
to feel free.

Samira Surfs: Treat in the Market | Illustration: Fahmida Azim

Tune In

Strong arms help you
carry the surfboard,
paddle,
get up on your feet.

But surfing is more than muscle power.
I learn from the beach,
studying Khaled, his friends, and the girls.
How they move in the water,
how they catch waves.
Every day, I see something new.

Water moves to its own
rhythm and beat,
but if I listen,
pay close attention,
I, too, can learn its music.


Words by Rukhsanna Guidroz | Illustrations by Fahmida Azim | "Samira Surfs' (Penguin Random House, 2021)

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