While many first graders are mostly focused on remembering to dot their i’s and cross their t’s, Mariam Kazmi at that age was meeting with her friends outside of school to write full books, one of which they had printed and distributed among classmates. Now 16, the Woodinville High School sophomore’s passion for writing has only continued to flourish, especially when it involves stories that she feels are important to tell.
Kazmi’s novel “Footsteps to Freedom” was recently published by The Little Book Company and is available online as an e-book at littlebookcompany.net.
The realistic fiction book follows four refugee teenagers from Somalia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria as they make their way to Seattle to seek asylum.
“I knew I was passionate about (the story) because I had a personal connection to it,” Kazmi said. “I wouldn’t even call it pure fiction. It depicts some of the real experiences people face.”
Although she herself was born and raised in the U.S., Kazmi has a strong connection with many people who came to the states seeking asylum through her mosque community and an organization she founded in eighth grade that focuses on teaching refugees English.
To fulfill a school community service requirement, she said, Kazmi decided to forge her own path instead of volunteering with an existing organization. She created English 1-on-1 to teach English as a second language classes to refugees in the Seattle area.
“I started with my mosque,” she said. “I realized there’s a lot of people who can’t speak English.”
She noticed that those who did have more of a mastery of the language were more successful in finding employment and even communicating with their own children. The experiences of the people she worked with ended up inspiring and informing many of the stories in her novel.
Mothers she knew said they had trouble communicating with their children who were born in the U.S., which became a struggle for one of the characters in her book. She also was able to use some of her own experiences, despite having grown up speaking English.
When she first started high school, she had come from out of the school district and didn’t know anyone. One day early on in her freshman year, she was pulled from class and told she had to take an English proficiency test.
“I was really frightened, because I was picked out randomly from one of my classes and asked to take this test,” Kazmi said.
It turned that out that there had been confusion because the language she speaks at home, Urdu, had been marked as her first language and English as her second. But the feelings she experienced that day stuck with her, and she realized many students who do speak English as a second language must have similar experiences constantly.
“I bet my characters feel that every day,” she said.
She got the idea for her novel in May 2020 and started writing that summer. She did extensive research on the countries from which her characters came from and about the process of seeking asylum in the U.S. in order to form an accurate portrayal.
She kept at it almost every day in the summer and then slowed down a bit when school started up again. However, in October, she set out to finish it and wrote around 1,000 words a day that month to meet the goal.
“It was the busiest month of my life,” she said with a laugh.
She connected with the Little Book Company, a digital publishing start up. After an extensive editing process, her book was published online at the beginning of April.
She said the process taught her a lot, especially during editing, where at times she wanted to give up.
"(The process) just really taught me that, if I really care about something, I’ll stay committed to it," she said.