The All-American Refuge
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Mohammed Mohammed’s story has a happy ending. But the cruel reality is Mohammed’s story is the exception.
“He’s a very inspirational case,” said Sophia Jacoub, an English language coordinator in Grossmont Union High School District. “Not every student who comes in to a new country at 14 or 15 years old makes it this far.”
Mohammed, ACSA’s Region 18 Every Student Succeeding Award recipient, was born in Iraq. His father owned a car dealership. Terrorist groups used the family’s wealth as an opportunity to incite fear and threaten violence.
“They would always tell my father that they were going to kidnap me, but if he paid them money, they wouldn’t kidnap me,” Mohammed said. “From that, he didn’t let me out of the house. He told me to stay home and be safe.”
In 2008, the same terrorist group kidnapped Mohammed’s father. His mother sold the family’s house to pay off the ransom, but his father was never returned, and they never saw him again.
“Some people say he’s alive and some people say he’s not,” said Thekra Betrus, Mohammed’s mother, in her native language of Arabic. “But I don’t really care because we’ve missed him for eight years now, and he hasn’t shown up. I’ve been the one raising my son. So whether or not I have my husband, it doesn’t matter because God gave me a son, and I care about him the most.”
Mohammed’s mother made the difficult decision to move the family to Syria. When they first arrived, Mohammed described his new country as “another United States.” But that quickly changed when the civil war began in January 2011. The United Nations estimated more than 90,000 people were killed in the first 28 months of the war. More criminal groups began kidnapping children in Syria, just as they had done in Iraq.
“I was really scared, and I just thought that it was the end,” Mohammed said. “My family is all going to get murdered by those people, by the terrorists. But then my mom stepped up and she said, ‘We need to leave this area. We need to move on with life.’”
In November 2012, Mohammed and his mother escaped Syria with the help of the UN and made the journey to the United States, ultimately ending up in El Cajon. Knowing very little English, Mohammed struggled to adapt to his new environment. But he quickly discovered, he was not the only refugee in El Cajon. The city is believed to have the second-largest number of Iraqis in the United States. El Cajon Valley High launched two summer school programs to help refugees assimilate and adjust to their new lives: Hope, Opportunity, Prosperity and Education (HOPE) and Perseverance, Responsibility, Independence, Dedication and Education (PRIDE). Mohammed flourished, and before long he was named captain of the school’s soccer team and was crowned Homecoming King.
“When I heard his name, I cried because I felt this is who deserves it because the students vote and it just proves how liked and well-respected he is on campus,” English teacher Melissa Drake said. “It was the greatest moment.”
Mohammed suffered through two wars, multiple attempted kidnappings and the loss of his father. He graduated from El Cajon Valley High and has dreams of becoming a doctor.
“His impact on campus transcends being a refugee,” El Cajon Vice Principal Jason Babineau said. “It’s not about being a refugee to Mohammed. It’s about him impacting groups of people throughout the entire campus, including staff members, including teachers, including vice principals.”
But more than anything, Mohammed Mohammed is safe and secure. And that’s what matters most.
“At first I always thought that I would be murdered or kidnapped,” Mohammed said. “And I would always have that fear. But right now in America, I don’t have any feeling of that. I’m in a better place. I’m in a place where it’s safe.”