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On his own since 12, refugee student sets his sights on college and career

Grad with grit: Shofi Alom

Kent ISD — When Shofi Alom says he wants to tell any young newcomer to the U.S. “Don’t be afraid,” the Kenowa Hills High School senior speaks from experience.

Shofi was born in Myanmar, where his family, Rohingya Muslims, is among an ethnic minority there that is persecuted and killed for religious reasons. Facing a life of poverty and lack of education past the fifth grade, his parents convinced him to flee the country on his own in 2015, when he was 12. 

He endured days-long walks through jungle, so hungry he ate banana tree leaves and bark from others; nearly two weeks aboard a human trafficker’s packed fishing boat where he witnessed rape and pipe beatings; and more than two years in a Thai detention center where he said he went more than a year without seeing daylight. 

‘He has faced more adversity as a young child than most people face in their entire life. … I am confident nothing can deter Shofi from his goals and dreams.’

–  aviation instructor Nicholas Brown

When he was 15, the United Nations and Bethany Christian Services arranged for him to be brought to Michigan. On a December day, he saw snow for the first time (“so white and scary”), put his new English to use (“I learned when you first see  someone, you say ‘Nice to meet you’”), and was shown how to work the shower in his foster family’s basement. 

“I’d never seen a bathroom like that,” he recalled. “I’d never seen a house with part of it underground. I thought it was ridiculous.” 

Since then, Shofi has made the most of his new home. He has excelled in school and out, works weekends at a restaurant and has earned “bountiful sports awards.” He also has taught new friends some skills he picked up in the detention center, such as how to make pillows and stuffed animals from plastic bags, a game out of discarded milk cartons and tags woven with string.

Thirsty for Freedom, Knowledge

Shofi has not seen his family since he left his native country in 2015. He has siblings he has never met. And while he said he has “lost all the tears I had” being separated from his family, he has focused on his academic pursuits, as he knew his parents wanted. 

As Shofi wrote in his college application essay, “they knew how influential and crucial it was to be knowledgeable. … Rohingya are thirsty for their freedom and knowledge. … Education is the universal key to unlocking any door that exists in the world.”

He said most of his teachers don’t know his history, yet “all of them helped me so much. I’m so lucky to be here.”

Shofi is a member of the National Honor Society and plans to start at Western Michigan University in the fall to study electrical and aeronautical engineering. As a second-year student in Kent Career Tech Center’s aviation electronics program, he has a head start having already earned a few certifications from the National Center for Aerospace and Transportation Technologies.

Shofi Alom learned to make these woven tags while at a detention center in Thailand

Shofi made a deep impression on aviation instructor Nicholas Brown. 

“I quickly realized how much adversity he has faced, and the more I talk with him and get to know him, the more I know that hardship and inner strength have grown. He has shared stories that no other student has gone through. He has faced more adversity as a young child than most people face in their entire life.  

“It has been a pleasure to watch him grow in these last two years, and I am confident nothing can deter Shofi from his goals and dreams.”

Shofi recalled his parents telling him, “Shofi, a thief could steal property, treasure, or even the clothes from the body, but they would never be able to steal the knowledge from you.”

‘All of them helped me so much. I’m so lucky to be here.’

– Shofi Alom, speaking of his teachers

As he works toward becoming a U.S. citizen, Shofi’s advice to peers is the same.

“Don’t be afraid. You have to get educated, and it’s free for you here. Always be eager to learn. There are people here who want to help you.”

Learn more: Shofi has created a website to showcase his talents and interests.

‘Education is the universal key to unlocking any door,’ says Shofi Alom
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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