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From Classroom to Walmart Night Shift, a Syrian’s Battle for a Degree

Zainab Abdo was once held at gunpoint on her way to take her school exams in Aleppo. Now resettled in the U.S., she is among nearly 100,000 university-qualified Syrians worldwide who have been stopped from attaining higher education.

Written by Lauren Holt Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Zainab hallway
Zainab Abdo was in her last year of secondary school when a bomb hit her family’s apartment building. Now as a refugee in the U.S., higher education is no easier to attain. Lauren Holt/PRI

Zainab Abdo studied in her bedroom. It became too dangerous to attend school. Her desk faced the window and it was here she spent most of her days, reviewing for exams.

The civil war in Syria had been raging for a year, but the fighting had yet to reach her village of Abyan, a small town west of Aleppo. When the bomb hit her family’s apartment the sound rattled Zainab’s desk. The apartment building shook and the reverberation shattered her window; smoke and debris filled the room. Zainab felt her way to the kitchen to find her family. Her mother and four younger siblings were all there. Her mother had already begun wetting rags for everyone to hold over their mouths. Her father, who had left to get groceries, joined them soon after.

The blast rendered the building uninhabitable so the Abdos had to act fast, collecting a few belongings before leaving their home for the last time. Zainab remembers her father telling them not to make a sound, just to run as they made their way to her grandfather’s house in a nearby village.

Five years have passed since that day, and Zainab, now 21, is in the second hour of her overnight shift at a New Hampshire Walmart. She unpacks a stack of cardboard boxes between the men’s and boys’ section, pulling plastic-wrapped boys shirts out of a box and tossing them into a shopping cart.

She wears the trademark Walmart blue vest over a long sleeve black shirt, with her floral hijab framing shaped eyebrows and a hesitant smile. She’s been working the overnight shift full-time for the past 10 months. Five days a week from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. she’s stocking shelves while the rest of her family sleeps at their home in Lowell – a nearby town in Massachusetts.

This night her shift consists of gathering stacks of shirts and placing them in a cart. She pauses often to check her phone. Zainab doesn’t even notice an unhappy toddler screaming a few aisles over. Instead, she focuses on the task at hand. The store closes at midnight. After that, Zainab and a short staff will work through the night. It’s at these hours her mind drifts.

Zainab thinks about how the future will look. She’s determined to be a doctor. Other times, she thinks about her family and the friends who are now scattered around the world. She also thinks about her grandmother, who is still in their village in Syria.

“I think about her every day,” she says.

Zainab was in her last year of secondary school when the bomb hit her family’s apartment building. For the rest of 2012 and part of 2013, the Abdos moved from place to place, including her grandmother’s home. The Abdos stayed near Abyan for three months until it became so unsafe they had to move again. In every living situation – a one-room house with no electricity or running water and holes in the roof – Zainab remained focused on her studies.

In order to receive her secondary education certificate – the equivalent of a high school diploma in the U.S. – she needed to complete a national exam administered by the Ministry of Education.

When the time came to take her exams, Zainab and her father left the rest of the family and traveled back to Aleppo. Traveling meant leaving the Free Syrian Army-controlled territory and entering an area controlled by Assad regime forces. The testing takes place over a few days. So every morning, Zainab and her father crossed the invisible border to the school.

“It [was] very dangerous,” Zainab says. During one crossing, a regime soldier held a gun to Zainab’s head and forced her and her father to the ground. Zainab watched a man get shot in the head.

“I hold my father and shut my eyes,” she says. She and her father remained on the ground for two hours until the air around them was quiet. Then they got up to complete the trip to school.

The war in Syria has had devastating effects on access to education for children remaining in Syria and those who are now refugees. Before war broke out, the student enrollment rate in primary education was close to 100 percent. Now, the United Nations is seeking to prevent a “lost generation” of Syrians. When Zainab took her final exams in 2012, the number of students who transitioned to secondary school had already dropped drastically from 98 percent the year before to 57 percent, according to UNESCO.

According to UNICEF, there are nearly 2.5 million children registered as refugees outside of Syria and many face barriers accessing education. The Abdos felt those effects when they made the decision to leave Syria and cross the border into neighboring Turkey in the fall of 2013. During a stint in Istanbul, Zainab received a grant to take one college class, but once that was complete she went nine months without attending school.

That restriction is what ultimately drove Zainab’s family to apply for asylum in the U.S. “My mother didn’t want her children working,” Zainab says.

Zainab and her family arrived in the U.S. 10 months ago. The UNHCR puts the number of Syrians who have fled since the civil war broke out in 2011 at close to 5 million; 12,000 were granted asylum in the U.S. last year. Of those, 30 were resettled in Lowell, a mid-size city 30 miles (48km) northwest of Boston. It took six months for the Abdos to be screened and granted refugee status. A year and a half would pass before they were notified their asylum plea was granted and that they would be resettled in Lowell.

The Abdos now live in the top half of a pale, yellow duplex 2 miles (3.2km) from the town center. The area is a diverse microcosm with a history of welcoming refugees and immigrants. In the 1970s, when Cambodians were fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Lowell was one of the few U.S. cities where they resettled. The International Institute of New England resettles refugees and immigrants in three cities – Boston, Lowell and Manchester, New Hampshire. Last year, more than 200 people were resettled in Lowell – 90 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rest from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Zainab is now enrolled in English classes five days a week at the Adult Learning Center in Lowell and twice a week attends a night class at Middlesex Community College. Education remains her priority and she does hope to enroll in college full time. But Zainab’s family, like many refugee families, relies heavily on the paycheck she earns from Walmart. Until recently, Zainab had been the only one supporting her family financially. Her father has since found carpentry work in Boston.

Zainab is among an estimated 90,000 to 110,000 university-qualified Syrians worldwide who have been blocked from attaining higher education, according to the Institute of International Education. Two New England colleges have made moves to change that. In response to President Donald Trump’s first executive order barring refugees from seven Muslim majority countries, Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, announced the Wheaton Refugee Scholarship for international students. The scholarship will cover full tuition costs for students. And in late January, Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, announced the creation of four new scholarships for Syrian refugees.

The deadlines have passed for Zainab to take advantage of either of these, so for now, she’s content. Soon she’ll have another appointment at the International Institute of New England, this time with her former case manager.

She wants to start volunteering with newly arrived refugees. When she’ll find the time, she’s not sure, but it’s important to her that all refugees feel welcome and have access to the education she’s still waiting to attain.

This story was originally published on PRI and is reproduced here with permission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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