This story was originally published in Validity Magazine and written by DeeGee Lester.
The blessing of an education – the opportunity to attend school and to learn – can too often be taken for granted. But when you grow up surrounded by the sound of gunfire and explosions, and your school is taken over by armed troops for use as a military barracks, education becomes a passion; an honorable and lofty goal. That goal propels Overton High School sophomore Mohammed Alkhateb, who now beams with joy whenever he talks about “my school.”
Mohammed, his parents, grandmother, and four younger siblings are Syrian refugees who arrived in Nashville last January. Their war-torn city of Homs is the third largest in Syria and has the reputation as “the capital of Revolution” in the fight against Bashar Al-Assad. Images show the mass destruction of this once-beautiful city.
“It was very bad,” Mohammed explains. “When the war started, there was a lot of killing. We just stay inside the home. I didn’t go to school for two years. The fourth and fifth grade, I missed all of that. Only my father would go outside to get food for us. We would sit there and we were scared. It was like a jail.”
On the same street, he remembers tanks coming to fire upon people and buildings. The effect on these young children, physical and emotional, was tremendous. He points to his head and the white hair interspersed with the thick black hair. “I was scared all the time,” he explains.
With the exception of 9 months in Damascus, the family lived in Homs. “One day, my father said ‘tonight, the army is coming. Today, we go!’ We just ran to Jordan. We took nothing with us. We don’t want anything – just safety.”
After one night in a camp in Jordan, the family got to move into a house in Amman. “We have just our clothes, so we sat on the floor. There was nothing. My father was able to get pillows for us.” Once his father started working as a barber, the family moved to a larger house and the children returned to school. “We went to three different schools and I did 6th, 7th and half of 8th grade.” Mohammed liked Jordan and was happy to be back in school, despite the bullying. “They would tell us, ‘You are refugees. We don’t want you here’. Even little kids would say, ‘Go back to Syria’.”
At last, the IOM, the international organization for refugees, called and informed his father the family could register to travel to America. The registration and vetting system was intense, requiring interviews with the entire family. “We did 20 interviews and the whole process took two years. We waited and we thought, ‘They don’t want us to go.’ But my father said, ‘We will wait and see. There is nothing else to do.’ The last interview, we got immunizations and they taught us about the papers we need, and things like how to find a house and a job. At last we were told to ‘get prepared,’ we would be going to America.”
“My father couldn’t believe it,” Mohammed says. “We hurried back and told everyone, ‘We’re going to America!’” His own excitement was mixed with the realization that this would be a new country with a new language, new alphabet, and he wondered how he would ever be able to communicate. “But I knew we have a big future!”
Like many before them, the family was inspired by the promise of America. After landing in Houston, they arrived in Nashville at the start of 2017. Mohammed was placed in Overton High, a school with a large, diverse population, whose faculty is among the best in moving students quickly into English language comprehension –speaking, reading, and writing.
“I have the best teachers,” he says enthusiastically. “When I have a problem or something is complicated, I go to Mr. Esterline or one of the others. They are so proud of me. They say, ‘How did you learn English in ten months?’”
Mohammed uses every opportunity to learn and to use his English. “In the summer, I didn’t sit home. I was in summer school.” He also volunteered for a summer internship at the Parthenon where he created a Power Point for teachers to teach students about the destruction of World Heritage Sites.
The promise of America is reflected in Mohammed’s experience. The student who arrived ten months ago with no English and an education interrupted by war, has presented at Alignment Nashville’s Parent University, served as student voice on a VIP Panel before the Nashville Chamber of Commerce Report Card Committee, and before visitors from Ford Hub. His recent report card was dominated by “A’s” with the exception of two “B’s.”
“I have a big future in America,” He says. “My goal in America is to communicate very well with people and to be a translator or the director of an organization, like the Parthenon or the Director of Schools.”