Extraordinary first person stories from around the world

Extraordinary first person stories from around the world


London, United Kingdom




Extraordinary first person stories from around the world






BBC World Service Bush House Strand London WC2B 4PH


The train driver asking men to open up about mental health

Heather Waugh is Scotland’s only female freight train driver, and she’s committed to improving the mental health of her male colleagues. Her work was inspired partly by a traumatic incident she witnessed while driving a train, when a young man took his life on the tracks. Now she’s been trained by a mental health charity to spot the early warning signs of mental health problems. She spoke to Outlook’s Andrea Kennedy. If you are feeling emotionally distressed, support is available...


The Paralympian who was trapped inside her body

When Victoria Arlen was a child, she had dreams of being an athlete. But at the age of 11 she became unwell and lost consciousness, only to wake up years later in a hospital bed locked into her body, unable to communicate or move. For months she was alert, but nobody knew it and all she had were her thoughts. Slowly she recovered and took up para-swimming, going on to break a world record at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. This story was first broadcast on the 30th of September 2018....


Recording my first album as a man

Cidny Bullens is a singer-songwriter whose career first took off in the 1970s, touring with Elton John and singing on the soundtrack for the movie Grease. Solo success would follow with two Grammy nominations. Cidny's style was androgynous - big hair, jumpsuits, flares, leather jackets... topped off with an electric guitar. But hidden behind the accolades were years of struggling with gender identity, something Cidny confronted aged 61. Ten years later he recorded his first album as man....


Punk, God, and my search for truth

When 17-year-old Paloma Romero travelled to the UK in the early 1970s, she was in search of freedom and opportunities that didn't exist in her native Spain, ruled at the time by the dictator Franco. Soon, Paloma fell in with the world of punk music, and (following a mix-up over her name) called herself Palmolive. She started a relationship with Joe Strummer from The Clash, taught herself to play drums and joined a band with Sid Vicious. When he kicked her out for refusing his advances, she...


Seven months trapped in an airport

Hassan Al Kontar always dreamed of being a journalist, but it was a dream he felt he couldn't pursue in his native Syria, so in 2006 he moved to the United Arab Emirates. But when the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Hassan was faced with an agonising choice - either leave his job, go home, and face military service or stay in the UAE and risk losing his right to work. He chose the latter and spent over five years homeless before being deported to Malaysia where he could only stay for three...


From songbird to birdsong expert

Professor Gisela Kaplan has had a lifelong bond with birds. As a lonely child in post-war Berlin, she would visit a family of swans for company. They made her feel safe and comfortable, offering some consolation during an otherwise hard childhood. This relationship formed a fascination with birds that eventually saw her becoming a highly-regarded ethologist, a specialist in animal behaviour, and an expert in Australian magpie warbles. Along the way, Gisela had a career in opera singing,...


Trapped in a "metal coffin" on the ocean floor

In 1988, after colliding with a fishing trawler at the surface, the Peruvian submarine Pacocha sank to the bottom of the Pacific ocean. With 22 men trapped inside, with no water, a fire on board and depleting oxygen, First Lieutenant Roger Cotrina Alvarado was determined to save his crew. An escape plan was hatched, but getting out of the submarine was only the first step - they still had to find a way to make the 42-metre ascent to the surface. Presented by Clayton Conn Produced by Clayton...


A decade without Dan: The search for my brother gave me purpose

On the 15th of July, 2011, 24-year-old Dan O’Keeffe went missing from his parents’ home in the state of Victoria, Australia. The family reported him missing but as there were no suspicious circumstances it wasn’t classed as a priority by the police and so Dan’s sister, Loren quit her job and led the long and gruelling search to try and find him, bringing together thousands of strangers along the way through the social media campaign, Dan Come Home. It would be almost five years before Dan’s...


From intensive care to the Olympic podium

Keeth Smart is an all-time great in the US in the sport of fencing. He was the first American to be ranked the number one fencer in the world. But in 2004 he suffered a devastating defeat at the Olympics when he lost a medal by one point. So in 2008 he was determined to redeem his reputation. Months out from the games, he noticed that his gums and hands were bleeding. Keeth was rushed into intensive care and told he had a 50-percent chance of survival. How he beat leukaemia and ended up...


Birdwatching with the men who kidnapped me

In 2004, young biologist Diego Calderón was captured while on a field trip in the Colombian Andes. His captors were Farc guerrillas, who held him for three months, seeking a ransom payment. Life in the Farc camp was basic and tedious, but Diego kept himself busy by studying the wildlife in the unique cloud forest habitat where he was held. Years later, after his release, Diego found himself face to face with the guerrillas once again. But by now a peace deal had been signed, and efforts were...


Banned from voting for my wife, so we changed the law

When Desmond Meade’s wife Sheena ran for public office in Florida, he wanted nothing more than for her to win. But there was one thing he couldn’t do – vote for her. As an ex-felon, Desmond had a lifetime ban on voting. It was a 150-year-old law that affected over a million people, and so Desmond and Sheena led a historic campaign to overturn it. At times, it felt like an impossible battle that would consume their whole family. And even now after all their successes, that fight is not over....


A plane crash left me lost in the Amazon

Antônio Sena is a Brazilian pilot who survived a dramatic plane crash in the Amazon rainforest earlier this year. He found himself alone, with very little food, and hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town. After waiting a week for rescuers to find him, he set off on an arduous trek into the dense forest. He tells Emily Webb that he kept himself going by eating fruit, and using knowledge of the Amazon that he had picked up as a child. His life was saved when he stumbled across a family...


Stories from Syria's secret library

In 2015 the Syrian town of Darayya was under siege. Its residents were being subjected to almost constant shelling, no-one could enter or leave, food was running out and there wasn’t enough medicine to treat the sick and injured. But deep in the bowels of a high-rise building, in a basement room, Darayya’s residents were slipping into a very different world. One filled with adventure, romance, comedy, tragedy, and the odd 'who dunnit'... this is the story of Syria's secret library and one of...


Rugby star Gareth Thomas: Strong, vulnerable and HIV positive

Gareth Thomas is one of the most successful and famous Welsh rugby players of all time. He's also celebrated for being the first rugby player in the world to come out as gay. But when he was diagnosed with HIV, he was wracked with fear because of the stigma the condition carries. He started telling a few people close to him about his HIV status, but one of his confidants started blackmailing him. Gareth decided to take matters into his own hands and reveal his secret in a very public way....


My unknown song became a political anthem in Hong Kong

Matthew 'Kashy' Keegan knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a pop star. He just didn't know how. He spent years writing and making music and knocking on the doors of the music industry but to no avail. By age 25, demoralised and fed up, he decided to quit. He took a job at a radio station and settled into his new life. But years later, when he was home one evening, his phone started to beep incessantly. He clicked on one of the alerts to find scenes of thousands of people out on...


I ran with the men, and changed history

Kathrine Switzer is a US runner whose dream - back in 1967 - was to be allowed to run a marathon. Back then there was a belief that women were physically incapable of doing such long distances, and it could even be dangerous for their health. Kathrine was 20 when she signed up for the world famous Boston Marathon using only her initials, but when she was spotted by race official Jock Semple he attacked her, outraged that a woman was running in the men-only event. Photos of that moment went...


The siege and the cat that saved my life

Aged 16 Amra Sabic El-Rayess was a grade-A student with a bright future ahead but then one day when she got to school almost all her ethnic Serb classmates were gone. This was Bihać in Bosnia Herzegovina in June 1992 and the city was soon surrounded by ethnic Serb forces. The remaining mainly Bosnian Muslims, which included Amra and her family, would face a three-year siege. But amidst the death and destruction Amra found a lucky charm, a 'refugee' cat called Maci who adopted her and who she...


Making friends with the man who stole my paintings

In 2015, Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova had two of her paintings stolen from a gallery in the Norwegian capital Oslo. Months later, a surprising encounter with one of the thieves in the courtroom led to an enduring friendship between the painter and the thief. As their friendship evolved, Karl-Bertil Nordland became not just Barbora’s friend, but also her muse. And as Karl-Bertil overcame his drug addiction, Barbora went on a quest to try to find out what had happened to her missing...


Life as the UK's first black TV reporter

Sir Trevor McDonald grew up in Trinidad, but when he got a job with the BBC World Service, he moved to the UK. He went on to become the first black television reporter and one of the country's most prominent presenters. Over the course of his career, he's interviewed Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi and even danced on screen with Desmond Tutu. He’s written a book about his life called An Improbable Life: The Autobiography. This interview was first broadcast on 7 Nov 2019. Get in touch:...


Discovering my sister's inner world

A complicated sisterhood: growing up, Arifa Akbar and her older sister Fauzia had shared everything from a bedroom, to secrets, to favourite movies and books. They'd moved from Lahore, Pakistan to London for a better life but ended up destitute. The change took its toll on Fauzia who developed depression as a teenager. Complex feelings of jealousy and anger took over and the two became estranged. Then in 2016, when Fauzia was 45, she contracted a mysterious illness. The sisters reconciled at...