In a swirling sea of students in red and white caps and gowns who were hugging family members and being photographed, Abdulhadi Aljazaeri stood tall with a beaming smile. In his hand he clutched something precious: a high school diploma.
Standing outside Sunshine Community Church, where he had just tossed his tassel in the Union High School graduation ceremony, the young man his friends call Hadi knew this was something he would never forget.
“This is the best moment of my life,” Hadi said, his well-spoken English rich with the accent of his native Iraq. “This is awesome. My family here with me, they are so, so happy.”
A little more than three years after emigrating with his family from Baghdad, Hadi had just achieved a milestone that would fundamentally change his life. After dropping out of school in his war-ravaged homeland, he now held the ticket to college and career in a new country he is happy to call home.
The moment didn’t come easily. Hadi knew no English when he arrived in Grand Rapids and struggled to understand his teachers. But he persevered for a year at Union High, then completed his studies at two alternative Grand Rapids Public Schools.
He chose to return to Union for his graduation because, he said earlier, “That happens just one time in life. I am really happy when I do that graduation walk.”
Indeed he was, striding across the stage, receiving his diploma and shaking five hands, including that of Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal. Then he proceeded out with 135 fellow graduates to the “Star Wars” theme and joined the red-and-white sea outside.
“I got a high school diploma, so this is the biggest thing in my life,” he said. “I’m proud of myself.”
‘A Better Life, a Safe Life’
His parents are also proud. His father, Raheem, and his mother, Shaymaa, say they left a lawless, dangerous land to provide a better home for Hadi and his 7-year-old sister, Rahmah.
“America has freedom. That’s why we came here,” said Raheem, with Hadi translating. “There was no safe life in Iraq. You don’t have human rights. But here in America we do.”
Raheem said he did not think of himself when they moved to Grand Rapids in the spring of 2013. He thought of his children.
“I decided to come to America for a better life, a safe life, a good future. I did not see any of those in Iraq, so I want you to get those here,” he said, speaking to Hadi.
We were in the living room of the family’s tidy Southeast Side apartment. Raheem congenially served me strong, sweet tea as he and Hadi described their journey to America from Iraq. It took them 2 ½ years to be approved for immigration as refugees, Raheem said.
They were aided in Iraq by the International Organization for Migration, which estimates more than three million Iraqis have been displaced by conflict since 2014. Their entry into Grand Rapids was facilitated by Bethany Christian Services, which provides services to many of the estimated 900 refugees expected to resettle this year in West Michigan.
“They are an exceptional family,” said Kristine Van Noord, program manager for Bethany’s refugee adult and family program. “Right from the very beginning, they had specific goals and dreams, and they have been very proactive in meeting those.”
Leaving Violence, Finding Friends
The family was also sponsored by Crossroads Bible Church, which provides refugee families with job searches, tutoring and other services. Shelley Bauer, a teen parent educator in Cedar Springs Public Schools, and husband Tim were “a second family to us,” Raheem said.
They helped ease the family’s transition from Iraq, where ongoing sectarian violence and unstable governance made life difficult, and where thousands now flee the terrors of ISIS. Raheem blames lax gun laws for the death of Hadi’s brother, who at age 12 was accidentally shot by a friend.
Raheem worked there in bakery and dairy businesses, and for a time as a radio installation technician at Camp Taji, a U.S. coalition forces military installation, where he once helped extinguish a building fire, Hadi proudly noted. But life was “no good” in Iraq, Raheem said. “You have no choice, you have to leave.”
Hadi did not like his school, either. It was dirty, lacked respect between teachers and students, and students made fun of his 6-foot-5-inch height, he said. He stopped going for more than a year before coming to Grand Rapids, where he saw “a big, big difference” in the schools.
Enrolling first at Union High, he took English as a second language classes and studied vocabulary at night. He finished his program at two alternative schools for older students: the Grand Rapids Learning Center, a partnership with Grand Rapids Community College offering online learning; and Southeast Career Pathways, an individualized program with a community-based emphasis.
“The schools here are really good,” said Hadi, who came as a freshman and is now 20. “The people are so friendly. The teachers are really helpful.” He proudly shows certificates he’s received for academic excellence.
As for local students’ take on his height, “They said, ‘Hey, you are very tall – come on, let’s play basketball!’” Hadi said with a smile. “I said, ‘Wow, OK, let’s do it!’”
Ready for College
Hadi took the same attitude toward his new country: Let’s do it.
“I was saying, ‘I have to do this. America’s going to be my life,’” Hadi said firmly. “I see my future. I can do whatever I want. I do have rights. I just say, this is my life, here.”
With a broad smile, he added, “It’s like I’m an American right now.”
Three years later, he can see his future more clearly. He has been accepted at GRCC, where he plans to study nursing while keeping his options open. He sounds up to the challenge.
“I just want to go for it,” he said. “I just want to study hard.”
Raheem, now a baker at a local market, smiled and said to his son, “I am 50. I don’t have the opportunity to be like you. But I am very happy to see where you are.”
His mother, Shaymaa, said she seeks “a safe life” for her children, telling them, “That’s all I want (for) you guys.”
At the graduation ceremony, Hadi’s family and friends gathered around him with photos and smiles. Later, he sent some of the photos and talked to Raheem’s brother in Iraq. His uncle said to Hadi, “I’m very proud of you. Keep going. Make something of your future.”
Standing tall in his red mortarboard, Hadi looked fully prepared to do so.