Above: Allan Hennessy with his mum, Aphra, at his graduation. Credit: Allan Hennessy.
We’ve really been enjoying social media for the past few weeks, largely because of all the inspiring graduation stories we’ve been seeing. Remember the Somali mum crying tears of joy at her daughter’s ceremony? That still makes a lump rise in our throat.
Fortunately for fans of good vibes, the tales of graduate glory continued this week with the news that Allan Hennessy, a blind former refugee, had achieved a first class law degree from Cambridge University. That is a good degree. A very good degree.
His story is one for the ages. Allan was born blind in Baghdad in 1995, three years after the end of the first Gulf War. Despite hailing from a relatively affluent family, the upheaval in Iraq meant he was unable to access the medical care that could have improved his condition. His future looked uncertain.
Speaking to BBC, Allan, 22, described his family’s struggles to improve his prospects in the war torn country: ‘My dad tried to get me treatment but there weren’t enough eye specialists – they thought I would always be blind.’
Yet Allan’s father did not give up. An opportunity arose, and he did not want to let it slip. His father sacrificed everything so Allan could undergo surgery in London: ‘My dad sold up to pay for the treatment – his car, belongings, some of his land. We left Iraq with very little.’
The procedure restored partial sight in Allan’s left eye. ‘My mum remembers the first time I looked at her – the first time we made eye contact,’ Allan says. ‘She burst into tears.’
Due to the unrest back home, Allan’s family sought political asylum. It was granted, but life as refugees in an unfamiliar land proved difficult. The family lived on a council estate and spoke very little English. At school, Allan misbehaved: ‘I was in the lowest set for everything and I would bunk off school. I threw eggs at buses, stuff that teenagers do.’
After GCSEs, Allan experienced a turning point. He realised that classmates in the top sets were no smarter than he was, so he began to take school seriously.
He went on to apply for Cambridge in 2012. He was one of only seven people with impaired sight accepted that year, not to mention the first person in his family to go to university.
It was just one more example of Allan bucking expectations: ‘All my life I’ve been told I cannot, must not, should not and would not. The disabled stereotype is subdued, helpless – and the biggest struggle for me is to overcome that stigma.’
Allan is crushing these stereotypes both in and out of academia. Along with his law degree, he’s freelanced as a journalist, bungee jumped and gone skydiving.
Following his graduation from Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam College, Allan is going to take up a scholarship at law school. The future looks very bright, although he knows there’s still work to be done.’
‘If you’ve got a first-class law degree from Cambridge University, that should set you up for life…But when you’re a blind, Muslim immigrant living in Britain today, there is so much more I have to do. The journey has only just begun.’
Despite the challenges he may face, we have a feeling Allan will still be really successful. Check out the short film the BBC made about him below.