Fulbright Alumna, Journalist & Feminist Itto Outini: “Working hard is the most important key”

Working hard is the most important key. The American dream is only achievable through hard work. It’s really not a dream — it becomes a reality if we work hard. The second key is sacrifice. If we want to get anything significant, we need to sacrifice for it. There are many things in this life that we’re […]

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Working hard is the most important key. The American dream is only achievable through hard work. It’s really not a dream — it becomes a reality if we work hard. The second key is sacrifice. If we want to get anything significant, we need to sacrifice for it. There are many things in this life that we’re okay without. Self-confidence is also very important. In many circumstances, it’s not what people say, but how they say it. The fourth area is to let go of anything that is toxic and is an obstacle to what you’re trying to achieve. And, the last key is to work hard. It’s so important that it’s on my list twice.

Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.

As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Itto Outini, a totally blind Fulbright Alumni, journalist, feminist, accessibility advocate and human rights activist.

She was born and raised in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to a Berber father and Arab mother. Her parents both died when she was young and Outini was shuttled from house to house among her relatives. She was abused by family members and never had an opportunity to attend school. To her family, she was nothing but a slave, housemaid and an outsider.

When Outini was 17 years old, her uncle’s wife threw a sharp object into her face, causing blindness. She was abandoned — blind, penniless and without any prior education. Outini became homeless on the streets of Morocco, only to face further abuse at the hands of strangers. Despite these enormous obstacles, Outini was committed to receiving an education. She started school for the first time at the age of 17 while still homeless — she spent her days learning and her nights without shelter in the mountains.

Despite these challenges, Outini managed to graduate from high school and eventually earn her bachelor’s degree in Morocco. She became a journalist with the hope she could serve as a voice for the voiceless in Morocco. To further her education, she applied for a Fulbright Scholarship in order to pursue her master’s degree in the United States. She was awarded the scholarship and completed her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Arkansas in 2020.

While pursuing her master’s, Outini realized returning to Morocco was impossible due to being an outspoken advocate. She applied for and received asylum from the U.S. in 2020. Currently, Outini is receiving training from the non-profit organization Alphapointe in Kansas City, Mo., in the areas of adaptive computer technology.

Following completion of this training, Outini aims to secure a position as a journalist and continue advocating as a voice for the voiceless.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

My name is Itto Outini. I was born and raised in Morocco. My mother died when I was little and my father abandoned me. I was shuttled between my family’s houses. When I was 17, my uncle’s wife blinded me. I never was able to go to school and before I was 17, I didn’t know how to read or write. I didn’t even know how to spell my name. I didn’t even know my last name. I didn’t even know how to count from one to three. I was literally illiterate. When I was 17, I was abandoned again while I was in the hospital and there I sought an opportunity to go to school. I started at the 7th grade level because of my age and I managed to graduate from high school in six years instead of 12 years. At the time, I was homeless because I had no family or no one to take care of me. It took me six years to be found by the people who rescued me and have helped me and continue to help me become the person I am today. Fazia and Thomas Hollowell lived in Morocco at the time and rescued me from being homeless. They paid for my school and took me to the American Language Center where I learned English. They helped me apply for the Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed me to earn my master’s degree in journalism.

Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?

My story to immigrate abroad dates back to when I was learning about the Western world. Because I don’t have family, I had that dream even before I met my American family. It became achievable for me because of my American family because I didn’t know how to go about applying. It’s not easy. A lot of people think it’s easy to immigrate, easy to live in a foreign country. It’s not even easy to get a visa. I had this dream and my American family made that dream achievable. In addition to that, I could not live in Morocco as a disabled woman because I was not free even of my own thoughts, such as my foreign ideas of atheism, activism and feminism. Free thoughts in general made me terrified of my own shadow. Blindness made it difficult to even know who to trust, where to go, with whom to talk, how to dress and whom I should be friends with. My only option was to escape and never go back.

Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?

In my first year at university in Morocco, I went to the NCC, which is a Moroccan-American commission for the exchange programs. It’s where the Fulbright office is in Morocco. I went there and told Dr. James Miller, who is like a father figure to me, that I was looking for scholarships and had heard about the Fulbright Scholarship, but that I didn’t know if I could get it because I’m blind. He told me that I was competing with my brain — not with my hands or eyes — and with my academic knowledge. After that, I started studying at the language center and the British Consul and started preparing for my exams. The Fulbright process is very long, so after I applied, I went abroad on an internship in Asia. Eventually, we received an email saying that I had been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Arkansas. I was delighted and so was my American family. I was happy, but it was also a weird feeling because of my hard work and all the suffering I had endured — sleeping in the mountains, depriving myself of food and sleep. I gave up a lot of things. I did not get the Fulbright out of nowhere. It is a result of my hard work. Sleepless nights, I deprived myself from food, clothes and shelter so that I could educate myself. Focusing on my education has always paid off. I never regretted what I gave up for the sake of educating myself. I still work hard every single minute to educate myself more, to change the world, to inspire and to motivate.

I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to talk about my past experiences. I love it because it helps other people. It helps people who are going through what I went through. I strongly believe in storytelling and that’s a main reason why I’m a journalist. It’s a great way to improve the world. After I earned the Fulbright Scholarship, I didn’t even have money to bring things to the United States. The fact that I had accomplished earning the scholarship meant that everything I didn’t have didn’t matter because I had what mattered, which was the scholarship. When I was on the plane to the U.S., I was talking to my American family and they were very emotional and crying. They were saying that it was really hard for them to sponsor me because of my disability and because of how I was treated. Mostly, they were relieved because they finally knew that I was going where I wanted to be and where they wanted me to be.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?

Fazia and Thomas are the main people who helped me. They rescued me from being homeless. But, there are thousands of people who have helped me and I am grateful to everyone. I’m grateful for people who helped me cross the street, teachers who taught me — everyone. I think about my teacher from my first day in class in 2007. She asked me to spell my name and I burst into tears. She asked for my ID, which I didn’t have, so I gave her a document with my name on it. She spelled my name and then told me my birthday. From that moment to now, I wouldn’t be here without the help of so many people — my host family in Arkansas, my grad school professors and friends — there are so many people without whom I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I can’t count — they are uncountable. There are still good people in the world and without them I would not be the person I am today.

So how are things going today?

At the University of Arkansas, I was in a bubble with other Fulbright Scholars and we were like a family. While there, I had cancer that was benign, and I had surgery to remove my eyes and that took a lot from me. Back in Morocco, I didn’t have an opportunity to learn technology. They have assistive technology for people who are blind, but I didn’t have the opportunity to learn it. When I came to America, I couldn’t do it on a student visa. I was thinking about how I would be able to learn different software for computers so that I could use them just as sighted people do, but with assistive technology such as screen readers and voice software. My state counselor in Arkansas was introduced to me by a best friend of mine who is a bus driver. I met my state counselor in my last semester in grad school. My bus driver told the counselor that I might end up staying in the United States and the counselor told the bus driver that he could help me if I was looking for a job. At that time, I had applied for asylum, but I was still pending. With asylum, you never know how long it might take — it could be five years, seven years, you never know. I was fortunate because I submitted my paperwork in December of 2019 and I got my interview in March 2020 and was approved. I’m thankful to the U.S. government for making that process very fast. It was amazing and I was so happy and relieved when I received asylum. After that, I talked to my state counselor about trying to receive training in adaptive technology. So, now I am at Alphapointe in Kansas City where my counselor is sponsoring me so that I can receive this training. This will allow me to use different computers with different software. This means I’ll be able to work independently.

At Alphapointe, I am learning a lot and I enjoy being here. I am in love with computers and different programs I have learned so far. I like my instructors and everyone here is very supportive and helpful. Sometimes I still cannot believe that I am fully living my dream and I am free to express my thoughts, dress however I want, listen to any music, date whomever I like and dream freely. This is one of the great things that I never had back in Morocco and freedom is something that no money can buy. I still hope that everyone will become free so that the world will become a wonderful place for everyone to enjoy.

What I love is advocacy and I’m hoping to use journalism to be a voice for the voiceless. I want to advocate for people like myself because I belong to all minorities. I am not only blind, a woman of color, an immigrant, an orphan — I’m so many categories of minorities. Because I have all of those labels, I want to use journalism to advocate for those people like myself.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I share my life story all over the world. Before the pandemic, I traveled and spoke as a motivational speaker. I had a lot of people who listened to me and then opened up to me for the first time to share their stories and that’s great. There have been a lot of people who took similar actions to what my American family did and then they helped others like me. I also motivate my friends to go out and advocate for people who aren’t necessarily in their own group. People can change the world through advocacy. I’m now a delegate for the state of Arkansas for the Refugee Congress and, through that, I’m hoping to be an advocate for the disabled, refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable immigrants. I’m also planning to start an international chapter for people with disabilities who received Fulbright Scholarships. I’m hoping to connect with governments and Fulbright organizations throughout the world with support from the U.S. State Department so that we can advise the disabled community on how they can participate in the Fulbright program.

You have firsthand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?

My personal experience was great. When COVID hit, I thought I would be forgotten and that I would never get asylum. When you’re pending for asylum, you’re not legally allowed to attend university or work. I thought it would take years or many months even without COVID. But, that wasn’t the case for me and I’m very grateful.

The first item I would adjust is that refugee organizations don’t have anything substantial for people with disabilities. Refugee resettlements do not have any accessible help for the disabled and what is disappointing is the organizations I contacted seem not to be interested on the matter. I was rejected many times by different organizations who preach that they support immigrants, refugees and asylees. But, I still wonder where do disabled immigrants fit? Why are they not being represented? Number two, around the world, there is very little about disabled immigrants in general, whether they are refugees, asylum seekers, vulnerable immigrants or immigrants in general. I have yet to see any programs that make me feel more comfortable about the disabled immigrants who are already here because they will struggle without having family here or being able to speak the language. The third area is with respect to immigration documents. They need improvements so that documents can be accessible to people with disabilities. For example, my asylum lawyer needed to learn a lot about how to handle the application. I was her first client with a disability and neither of us were certain how to move forward in several areas.

Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.

Working hard is the most important key. The American dream is only achievable through hard work. It’s really not a dream — it becomes a reality if we work hard. The second key is sacrifice. If we want to get anything significant, we need to sacrifice for it. There are many things in this life that we’re okay without. Self-confidence is also very important. In many circumstances, it’s not what people say, but how they say it. The fourth area is to let go of anything that is toxic and is an obstacle to what you’re trying to achieve. And, the last key is to work hard. It’s so important that it’s on my list twice.

I think my story helps describe all of these things. When I was homeless, it was really hard. I’m blind, so you don’t know who’s approaching you. You don’t know where you’re going. After I left the hospital and went back to the street, I was able to get by because I have high self-confidence, I’m determined and I work hard. In worked harder than many people. I worked in restaurants and did things that would take all night and I would have sleepless nights.

When I was in eighth grade — and this was before I met my American family — I told the director of the school, who happens to also be blind, that I wanted to go to America. He told me that I was homeless and that attending university in Morocco would be the best thing I could do and that, if that happened, I should celebrate. Most people would have said that to someone like me because I was homeless. A lot of people would be hurt and cry after they heard that. But, I wasn’t hurt. I told him that I was going to go to America. In 2017, I called him and asked him if he remembered what he said. I told him I was getting ready to go to America. He was very emotional and said he was sorry. I told him that it didn’t hurt me, but that there are a lot of people like him who judged people by the way they looked. Yes, I was homeless, I was dirty, I was a Berber, a native Moroccan and those types of people rarely made it to the top. But, I told him that I had a dream and that my dream needed to be respected. I told him that I hoped he had learned his lesson and I think he did.

He wasn’t the only person to be like that. When I was on the streets, I went to one of the ministries for the disabled in Morocco and one of the people there told me that even people who aren’t disabled can’t achieve what I wanted to achieve. I did the same thing with him. Before I came to American, I visited him and told him that I achieved my dream even though he didn’t help. His reaction was the same.

When I arrived in Arkansas, I was walking in a neighborhood and someone in a car stopped me and said they had seen my story in the Moroccan media. He said that he was very proud of me. He told me that he was happy that he met a Moroccan like me who had overcome so many challenges. A person in Arkansas seeing that helped me understand the power of the media and made me want to be a journalist even more. The media helps create change. We have the power as we can spread peace through the media and educate the people and that is one of the reasons that I am a journalist.

We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?

What makes me very optimistic is the overall set of laws the United States has, which are great. It’s something that we really need to respect. Technology is something I’m very optimistic about. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be able to do many things unless we had the technology we have today. Lastly, there are so many people who work hard all the time and they make the impossible possible. People doing that makes me optimistic about the future.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are many people I wish to meet one day, but the person I would love to meet is J. William Fulbright. Unfortunately, he’s no longer alive. However, I’m glad that I met him through walking where he walked and studying where he studied at the University of Arkansas. I’m thankful to him for creating the Fulbright Scholarship program. I would love to meet anyone who is a part of his family. I want them to know that a person like me accomplished their dream because of something their ancestor did.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

LinkedIn and my personal website are the best places where people can follow me.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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