Starting from Zero: Mohammad's Story

December 21, 2019

Article by Robert Carroll


In this month's feature, read how a high school senior from Syria rose to the top of his graduating class just three years after arriving in the United States as a refugee with no English and only a few years of standardized schooling. This young man and his four siblings were enrolled in school and joined an after-school homework club that further ignited his intense passion for learning and helping others. Read on to learn more about the impact you make possible when you partner with World Relief.


Mohammad Marie looks and acts like a typical high school senior—one that has spent his entire life living and learning in the United States. When I meet him, he’s wearing a hoodie, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. His backpack is loose on his shoulders. He owns an iPhone and he carries a pair of Apple airpods in his pocket. He greets his friends with high-fives, and he jokes lovingly with teachers using American slang and gestures. He has an Arabic accent, but his English is otherwise impeccable.

But Mohammad Marie is not a typical high school senior.

Mohammad and his family, which includes three brothers and a young sister, fled war-torn Syria earlier in the decade in order to seek safety in the neighboring country of Jordan.

“We left Syria because of huge civil war,” he explains. “The people were fighting the government. The government was of course stronger. They had a lot of heavy missiles and they started shooting people and shooting houses down and stuff.”

Mohammad is a charismatic young man who usually speaks with excitement. He’s usually very animated. But when he recounts the war in Syria for me, his tone is sober and his face lacks expression. The way he says “and stuff” seems to cut right to the truth of the matter. What more does one have to say after “heavy missiles” and “shooting people and houses down?” If I haven’t gotten the point by then, it’s likely that I never would.

“The place [Syria] wasn’t livable anymore, so we just flee,” Mohammad remembers. “We first try to flee to other cities that doesn’t have as much war in them and trouble. We went to Jordan. But Jordan wasn’t a livable place [either]. A lot of people didn’t even have food. Like even electricity was a hard thing to get. Life was hard. We couldn’t take it anymore.”

Then in 2016, after many years living in Jordan, Mohammad’s family was offered a chance to resettle as refugees in the United States. They accepted the offer.

“We came [to the United States] and started a life,” says Mohammad. “But we start from a zero though. When you come from Jordan, you literally don’t have much to offer.”

But Mohammad and his siblings were more than willing to work hard to become more.

“School was our first priority,” he says. “We wanted to learn.” But he then explains how he lacked the educational background that his American peers had. “We [Mohammad and his siblings] did not go to middle school at all. It was during war time. I like went half of the sixth grade and little of the fifth grade, but I didn’t go to seventh or eighth. There was a war and stuff. You know, it was a little harder for us to learn.”

With the help of World Relief’s Aurora office, Mohammad enrolled as a freshman at Aurora West High School. He spoke no English. Literally.

“Like not even a word,” he says emphatically. “Like, you will come and say ‘hi,’ and we not know what the ‘hi’ means. Our English level was zero.”

Three short years later, Mohammad speaks fluent English and has a 3.8 GPA.

He laughs. “I got here and was surprised at how good I was at school.”

I ask him how he achieved such amazing success in such a short period of time.

He smiles a big smile and answers my question without thinking. “I inherited it from my mother,” he states. “My mother really taught me a lot of stuff when I was a kid. She taught me good ways of learning.”

He pauses, then elaborates.

“If you’re not going to try, it’s going to become even harder,” he explains. “If you don’t try enough, I don’t think you’re going to get it. You need to try first and see where you fall on the scale of how good you are and stuff. And then from there you go.”

Mohammad quickly discovered that he loves to learn. His favorite subject is math, for which he has a natural gift, but he also loves biology, chemistry, physics, history, and English. He wants to become a doctor because he wants to be good at more than just math; and having to learn more biology would help him strengthen a weakness—his words, not mine. Yes, he’s that level of determined.

A few months into his freshman year, his passion for school and his love for making friends inspired him to join an after-school program called Homework Club.

Homework Club is hosted at Aurora West High School. Its purpose is in the name. The club is a place where students can gather after school and get help with their homework. Teachers and volunteer tutors are readily available.

Mohammad didn’t need much help with his own homework, but he soon realized that he was really good at helping other students with theirs. He especially loved checking their work on math equations. And if it was wrong, he would help them find the right answer.

“Maybe try this,” says Mohammad, explaining for me how he first started tutoring others. “Maybe do this.” The students would thank Mohammad for his help, and this would make him feel good. “Once I felt good about it,” he says, “I was like, maybe I should do this more.”

Mohammad—the teenage refugee who spoke no English and who had not been in a proper classroom in years—was suddenly being asked regularly by teachers and volunteer tutors alike to assist his peers with their assignments.

World Relief staff member, Cyndi Fusek, has been helping with Homework Club since 2014. She has known Mohammad since he first walked into the club three years ago as a freshman. It’s apparent that she is fond of Mohammad and that she sees in him a bright kid with a brighter future.

“Cyndi is doing a great thing,” Mohammad tells me. His words become effusive. “She’s doing one of the most beneficial things. It’s very, very great for newcomers and people who come from other countries to find somebody like Cyndi. I really thank her for what she’s doing for people, you know. A lot of students really were benefitted by all the stuff she did. I think what she’s doing is just as great as saving people from dying in a war. Because those children are going to grow up, and if they didn’t get the help they needed, I don’t think they’re going to be able to live much. Life sucks if you don’t know how to live. You need help. But if there’s no Cyndi, if there’s no help for you, it’s going to be harder. Let’s be honest.”

People like Cyndi have inspired Mohammad to help others the same way they helped him. For example, Homework Club was not going to be held the day of our interview due to final exams and the impending holiday break, but Mohammad convinced the leaders to keep it scheduled. He told them that the club members could use the class to help them study for their exams. And use the class they did. Every seat was taken.


Author

This article was written by Robert Carroll, Communications Manager for World Relief.
To contact the author, email him at rcarroll@wr.org.