High school students are celebrating an end to adolescence at graduation ceremonies held throughout the county in the coming days. For two Lee High School students who are graduating on Monday, however, receiving their diploma is more than a coming of age moment.
Seniors Saif Al-Qaraghuli, 18, and Nura Hassan, 20, were born in the then-conflict zones of Iraq and Somalia. Both teens emigrated to other countries before coming to the U.S. during their teenage years, where they enrolled in high school. Faced with disruptions to their educations, language barriers and cultural shifts, teachers of these two graduates say they are models of perseverance and hard work.
Born in Iraq, Al-Qaraghuli lived in Baghdad until age 12. His family then moved to Jordan before coming to the U.S. at age 16.
“It was very dangerous for us to live in Iraq. We couldn't stay there anymore,” Al-Qaraghuli said. His father, a doctor, worked in Baghdad's Green Zone, the government center of the city, which became a focus of U.S. military strikes during the invasion.
“It was very chaotic back there. The war, the people, even your neighbors you couldn't trust,” he said. “It was very dangerous… We had an attack on us once. We had a mortar [a rocket-like bomb] fall on our house, while we were in it. I was like 11. Dad decided to move us then [to Jordan]…
“It wasn't easy for us in Jordan. I had to step up a lot for my mom. I had to not stay a little kid anymore. I had to mature up a bit.”
The family moved to Jordan before Al-Qaraghuli moved to the U.S.
“When I came here, I had basic English. So they put me in ESOL 2 [the second of six levels of proficiency classes], but they quickly moved me to ESOL 3,” he said. Adapting to U.S. educational standards meant the teen spent five rather than four years in high school, where he has become a member of the Student Government Association and student athlete.
“[A] few months after joining high school and striving to adapt to a new culture, he had set three goals to attain: become a player on the school tennis team, become a member in the SGA and graduate in 2013 and not later,” Al-Qaraghuli's mother, Nadia Al Mahmood, said. “He managed to remain focused on his school work in spite of all the hardships we have been through since we left our home country Iraq three years ago. However, as a proud parent of her son, I can easily write a book about his determination to succeed in life.”
Quiet, but frequently smiling, Nura Hassan's demeanor contrasts with the violent environment of her homeland during her birth. Hassan left Somalia at less than a year of age.
“There was a civil war that broke out…The situation was really dangerous,” she said. After leaving Somalia, Hassan lived for three years in Kenya before moving to Ethiopia. Two months before her 16th birthday, Hassan, her mother and two older brothers –today ages 22 and 28—moved to the U.S. with the goal of getting a better education and stability, she said.
Hassan enrolled as a freshman at Lee High School at age 17.
“I was in and out of school because we moved so much,” she said of the disruptions to her education. “I think, if I had come from a country that was peaceful, I would not have adapted so well. But having to move around so much and seeing so much horror, I saw this [move to the U.S.] as a positive…
“You can take your experiences as negatives or turn them into something positive. That's what I decided to do.”
While one of Hassan's brothers is enrolled in English classes at Northern Virginia Community College, Hassan will become the first in her family to attend college and take college-level courses next fall.
“She is like a super hero. From the very beginning it was tough for her and she stayed with it,” said Hassan's older brother, Ismail. “I couldn't make it [to college] like her because I was supporting the family and working and all that, but I'm proud to have supported her. Whatever I couldn't do because of work, I am doing through her.”
Nura Hassan said she hopes to study nursing in college next year. She and Al-Qaraghuli will be attending George Mason University in the fall.
“It was my childhood dream to help people. Back in Somalia there is a lot of need for medical help and I want to go back to help people,” Hassan said.
Al-Qaraghuli and Hassan are two of about 450 students graduating as part of Lee High School's Class of 2013. For the 260 students currently enrolled in ESOL classes at Lee, their graduating peers are an inspiration, teachers said.
“Without a doubt, Saif's pre-USA experiences have affected him. He has witnessed firsthand the destruction and strife caused by war, and unfortunately, he has even experienced fearing for his own safety; but he has used these experiences to make him, not break him,” English teacher Melissa Scott said. “Since arriving in America, Saif has been an amazing student who has pushed himself past all expectations set upon him. What sets him apart from other students is his kindness towards others. He never hesitates to help someone in need, and he always has something positive to say about each person he meets.”
Science teacher Sabrina Kessenich instructed Hassan in her Human Anatomy and Physiology courses. These courses are heavy on vocabulary, Kessenich said, adding that this did not deter Hassan.
“She was very open about asking for clarification or asking questions that related to the topic at hand. For example, she would hand in a lab report early – ask me to check over it- and then revise it. Rarely done by other students,” she said. “I can't speak for her but I think many immigrant students see education as an opportunity for a better life – not just an opportunity to graduate…
“I think Nura reminds us all that a school community is there to support all students – but each individual has to figure out what it means to them to get an education.”
Like Hassan, Al-Qaraghuli said he would like to study medicine in college.
The Hassan said she is applying for her U.S. citizenship this summer and Al-Qaraghuli said he hopes to do the same soon.
On receiving her high school diploma, Hassan said, “For me, it's like getting two diplomas because I learned English and earned my [high school] diploma… It's a new beginning for me, a new future.”
Al-Qaraghuli said, “It's the next step in my education. It's not over.”