ASU student finds success after fleeing Iraq

Najla Abdalla stands in front of the Islamic Community Center in Tempe while wearing her abaya, a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world, including North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. (Photo by Andrew Nicla) Najla Abdalla stands in front of the Islamic Community Center in Tempe while wearing her abaya, a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world, including North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. (Photo by Andrew Nicla)

 

Screams and yelling flooded the streets of Baghdad. Social work senior Najla Abdalla remembers being caught in the sea of shouting voices and moving with the flow of the stream, fleeing from Baghdad. She and her family left everything they had.

Abdalla and her family moved to Iraq in 2004 from Sudan after the Second Sudanese Civil War. Life was great in Baghdad, she said. It was normal before the Western campaign to depose former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

“We didn’t struggle in Baghdad,” Abdalla said. “We lived very well; in fact, my father owned a restaurant.”

The life they were living for over 10 years would soon change.

 

Leaving Baghdad

 

Abdalla, who was only a young girl, knew her country had a corrupt political system, but she could not have guessed how merciless and war hungry Hussein was.

Tension began to rise as the U.S. and Britain prepared to invade Baghdad and depose Hussein.

Her family left in 2003, just before the invasion and the fall of Baghdad.

Abdalla said she clearly remembers the day her family chose to leave Iraq.

“It was the first day of the war and everything was crazy," she said. "There were too many loud noises; you couldn’t even sit in the house, because it was chaos. My parents talked about what was going on and then they made a decision and said that we have to leave.”

Because their choice to leave Baghdad was almost an impulse, they had no time to pack.

“When we left the house we couldn’t even take anything because we thought that we were coming back. We took nothing,” she said. “The saddest part is that we left our family pictures. We don’t even know what we looked like when we were little, not any more. We even closed the doors, thinking that we would come back.”

Abdalla vividly recalls the scene of panic just outside of her front door.

“When we went outside, we saw chaos,” she said. “Everyone was running in the streets and yelling, everything was crazy. We saw Iraqi military tanks driving on the street, preparing themselves for something. That’s when we knew that we had to leave.”

Luckily, her family caught a ride out of Baghdad to the Sudanese Embassy, escaping the carnage.

Because Abdalla’s family of seven was too much for her relatives in Sudan to support, they began to reconsider their decision to flee to Sudan and tried to enter Jordan, the next closest country to them.

But there was another problem. Because of the surplus of Sudanese immigrants fleeing Baghdad and other countries, the Jordanian government would not allow them to enter Jordan.

Abdalla and her family, along with the hundreds upon hundreds of fleeing immigrants, had nowhere to go but the Sudanese Desert.

“When we left with everyone to the desert, we tried to look for attention," she said. "We needed outside help. The Jordanian government saw us leave for the desert; they realized that they couldn’t let us live there. We could die out there. So they brought some tents for us to sleep in.”

Eventually, Abdalla and the other refugees would receive the attention they needed.

"That’s when reporters came and took pictures, then the world heard of it and that’s when the United Nations came to help,” she said. “(The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) opened (its) doors for us to apply for a refugee status. We stayed in the desert for 11 months.”

 

Najla Abdalla stands in front of the Islamic Community Center in Tempe while wearing her abaya, a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world, including North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. (Photo by Andrew Nicla) Najla Abdalla stands in front of the Islamic Community Center in Tempe while wearing her abaya, a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world, including North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. (Photo by Andrew Nicla)

 

Arriving in America

Upon receiving refugee status, Abdalla and her family received help from the International Rescue Committee and were relocated to Phoenix.

The family was given a residence, her parents were given jobs and she and her siblings were enrolled in school.

Abdalla attended high school at Central High School in Phoenix, where she worked on learning English and adjusting to American culture. She said she felt alone initially.

Overcoming any language or cultural barrier is difficult, but having her family by her side made things much easier, she said.

"We learned how to write very well, but the speaking was difficult, because we have an accent," she said.

Abdalla and her sister, Salma Abdalla, attended high school together. They sat together during class, took English as a Second Language classes and made friends who spoke English to practice their speech.

One of Abdalla’s friends from Central High School, Bimala Pudasaini, spoke of Abdalla's friendship with her.

“That year we didn’t have class together but I had a class with her sister Salma. That was my first semester in (the U.S.), and I didn’t have any friends beside Najla and her sister,” Pudasaini said.

To help her family, Abdalla found a job at a 99-cent store. Working there was easy for her, because the customers rarely spoke English, she said. Once she gained more confidence speaking English, Abdalla found a job working at a grocery store near her home.

It took Abdalla nearly three years of learning English to become fluent.

Learning English was hard, but adjusting to a new culture was also very difficult, she said.

“In school, I wore a headscarf," she said. "People in high school did not understand. They didn’t know other cultures. Because of that, they would look at me weird and try to make fun.”

One of Abdalla’s sisters, Ibtisam Abdalla, spoke of the differences in culture.

“Going to dances was different for us. We had to dress a lot differently than our friends,” Ibtisam Abdalla said.

Abdalla said her peers made fun of her out of ignorance of her culture. Once she explained to them why she wore a headscarf and her other cultural differences, they understood.

"They would ask 'Isn’t it hot?,' and all of that stuff," she said. "They weren’t diverse. It’s not like they knew and they made fun, they just didn’t know."

 

Iraqi-refugee-post Najla Abdalla stands in front of the Islamic Community Center in Tempe while wearing her abaya, a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world, including North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. (Photo by Andrew Nicla)

 

Pursuing a Higher Education

Throughout her young-adult life, Abdalla always wanted to challenge herself. When it came time to choose which university to attend, she was faced with doubt from her advisor.

Abdalla said she felt as though she was being discouraged from going to a university. Her high school advisor encouraged Abdalla to go to a community college because her English was not suitable for the setting of a university.

“I was not interested in going to a community college, I don’t know why,” she said. “Everyone was going to Phoenix College or a community college. There was nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to go to a university like ASU to challenge myself.”

Abdalla went against her advisor’s advice and pursued a higher education at ASU.

“I wanted to see myself in a bigger, diverse setting and I wanted more opportunities,” she said.

When she came to ASU, Abdalla was drawn to the Tempe campus because of the amount of diversity it had. She had no trouble getting involved in school organizations including the International Student Association, Arab Student Association and the African Student Association.

Looking forward

Abdalla said while things have been hard for her in life, she hopes to use her experiences to give back to the community.

“I want to be a therapist, but at the same time I want to give back to the refugee community,” she said.

Abdalla continues to hold high standards for herself. She even admits that she is not counting out obtaining her doctorate one day. She blushes at the idea of it.

One of Abdalla’s biggest supporters is her family. They told her and her siblings something that she continues to carry with her as her motivation to not settle for less.

Abdalla's father owned a business in Iraq, but when their family moved to the U.S., he had to start his career over again, because he didn't have the language skills or the education necessary.

"He told us that if we weren’t going to continue our schooling, we would end up working three or four jobs just to live in this life," she said. "I don’t want to end up doing that."

Abdalla said education is something her father has always stressed to her and her siblings.

"They told us that they didn’t bring us here to be nothing," she said.

Reach the reporter at anicla@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @andrewniclaASU


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