Khaled Alsabbagh remembers being rocked awake at night from bombs exploding in his hometown Douma, about 12 miles northeast of Damascus, Syria.
“Every day around my city was bombs, fighting,” he said. “Every day we (were) scared from if I will wake alive.”
Yemen native Ruba Al Saidi has seen bullets strike the flesh of children, explosions tearing limbs from loved ones. She knows of a teenage friend who committed suicide after losing her family to war violence.
“Bombs every morning, every night, every day,” she said. “No school, no life, no future, so that’s why I left my country.”
The two teenagers attend ESL Newcomer Academy in Louisville, which focuses on providing a welcoming and respectful environment for English language learners.
The teens’ hurried escapes — through Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Algeria, Egypt — involved the loss of prized possessions, the destruction of homes, the deaths of loved ones. As refugees, they have struggled to fit in, often facing animosity from the native populations, including the U.S.
Khaled recently won a speech competition at the school and will be giving a short presentation at 1:15 p.m. Friday in View Pointe Hall at the Muhammad Ali Center, as part of the 2017 Workforce & Education Summit hosted by 55,000 Degrees, KentuckianaWorks and Greater Louisville Inc.
Despite their difficult backgrounds, psychological trauma, struggles to learn English and adapt to a new culture, Khaled, 18, and Ruba, 16, plan to attend college. Both want to become doctors. They have witnessed physicians saving people in difficult circumstances. They know the doctors’ efforts have not been enough.
Ruba’s dreams reflect her home country’s desperate state: She also wants to serve people as a police officer, lawyer and teacher.
Escape from Syria
Khaled and his family, including parents and siblings, fled their home city to Damascus Sept. 20, 2012 because bombs had been raining on Douma from the mountains around the city.
The family members initially thought Damascus to be safe, but they soon learned that Syrian government forces frequently subjected people to ID checks and car searches. Some of the forces, Khaled said, acted rudely toward people, bullied them by making them wait in their cars for hours in the hot sun, and worse.
When the conflict grew worse, the family fled from Syria in March 15, 2013, drove to Lebanon and flew to Cairo, Egypt, where Khaled’s uncle had opened a Syrian restaurant.
“We just wanted to be safe,” Khaled said.
The teen started working in a grocery business, but he was young and struggled with lifting heavy crates, so he switched to working in a bakery, making Syrian bread for refugees like his family.
Two years later, Khaled and an older brother opened a sandwich shop. His brother would open the store at 8 to prepare food, and Khaled joined him after school for the shop’s busiest time of day. Khaled said the shop attracted some big crowds. He chopped pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers. His brother would take a break to see his wife and children, then return to the shop around 10 p.m. and tell Khaled to go home and do his homework.
Khaled lived with his father, Mohamed Alsabbagh, mother, Inssaf Ezo Rahebani, and sisters Israa, 16, Taymaa, 20, and Alaa, 24.
The family had established a new life in Egypt: Three of Khaled’s other siblings, all of them married, also lived in Cairo. Nonetheless, the parents decided to uproot the family again to provide the younger children access to a better education and medical care in the United States.
Khaled said some of their family and friends questioned the decision, saying that adjusting to life in another new country, no less one with a different culture and language, would be difficult. But others encouraged the family to move because of the better education system and access to medical care, which is critical to Khaled’s oldest sister, who has trouble walking after knee and foot surgeries.
Khaled, his parents and three sisters arrived in Louisville in May.
Escape from Yemen
Ruba said she still remembered the first time she felt a bomb explode. She was in her house, in Ibb, Yemen, making food and talking with relatives when an explosion shattered a window.
Ruba said that many of her friends had died in the war. One of her teenage friends committed suicide after losing her family to war violence. Ruba has dealt with some of her experiences by drawing them in a diary.
Even outside of the violence, life was difficult, she said, because even basic necessities are expensive. Kids walk for hours to bring home food and dirty water.
People cry everywhere, she said.
She teared up at the memories.
Most kids can’t afford to go to school, she said, and those who can sit in classrooms with 60 other students per teacher.
“You can’t make your future,” she said.
The family, including Ruba, her three brothers, and their mother, left one morning in 2015. It was a hurried departure.
“I only took my clothes,” she said.
She left behind her prized diary, which contained more than 100 of her drawings she had completed since age 7.
After leaving Ibb, the family members drove to Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and stayed there for a month, before flying to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, then to Qatar and Algeria, where they stayed for two months in a refugee camp as they filled out paperwork to come to the U.S.
In late November, Ruba and her family traveled to Louisville, to reunite with her father, who had lived in the U.S. since age 18. Ruba had last seen him 18 months earlier.
Adjusting to life in Louisville
Kentucky is among the top 10 states for refugee resettlement per capita, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. In 2016, the state received 54 refugees per 100,000 residents, more than double the national average. The top origin country in 2016 was the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 16,370 refugees settling in the U.S. Syria was second, with 12,587. Once resettled, nonprofits help the refugees with their transition.
According to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, 160,00 immigrants, including 10,000 entrepreneurs, live in Kentucky. Immigrant-owned firms employ more than 35,000.
Khaled and his family received help from Kentucky Refugee Ministries, representatives of which welcomed them at the airport.
Khaled started learning English and the Latin script in his last year in school in Cairo. He said he studied hard because he knew that education is the key to his becoming a doctor. He learned 25 new English words per week, he said.
But knowing the words is different from speaking or understanding the language. The first month in the U.S., he limited his vocal output to “good morning” and “hello,” he said.
“I was lost,” Khaled said. “I was scared to speak.”
But after a month, he said he challenged himself to try harder. Practicing his English with friends and volunteers helped, as did participating in the local public library’s English Conversation Club — and watching American movies, with Arabic subtitles.
The family frequently relies on the son to translate. He has to go through the mail, for example, to figure out what can be thrown away and what has to be opened right away. He also has to translate for other mundane tasks, such as shopping, opening a bank account and dealing with government agencies.
Khaled’s father volunteers at the local mosque and plans to work in an auto body shop soon, but his English skills are progressing only slowly, which has hindered the elder Alsabbagh from obtaining a driver’s license.
Ruba and her family arrived the day after Thanksgiving in 2015, and she and remembers the beautiful Christmas decorations and the kinds of homes she had only seen in movies.
She also recalled that she did not own the proper clothes for a Kentucky fall.
“It was really cold,” she said.
On her first day, the family went to a store to buy jackets.
While Ruba had no schooling from age 10 to 15 — one of the major reasons for the family’s escape — the teen said she learned the letters of the Latin alphabet in Yemen, because her parents had told her that they would have to leave the country. She learned a little bit of English with a friend, so she knew some words before she fled.
Speaking English was tough at first. Ruba said she was pretty quiet for the first two months. She said a bad word once, by mistake, she said, but it undermined her confidence.
She learned at home the first year in Louisville and began attending the ESL academy this school year.
‘Optimism that is reminiscent of Anne Frank’
Scott Wade, who teaches Khaled and Ruba at the ESL academy, said the teens were struggling with the same issues as many other students at the school — language, culture, separation from family — but on top of that, they’re dealing with the trauma of growing up in countries torn apart by war.
Ruba has seen massacres, Wade said. She saw firsthand what artillery shells do to a child — when she, herself, was still a child.
Some of her drawings reveal the horrors she has witnessed, he said. One of her pieces of art shows a woman weeping, and if you look closely, Wade said, you can tell the tears are blood. Another shows a heart torn apart by a bullet.
And yet, Wade said, somehow she has maintained a kind of optimism that is reminiscent of Anne Frank.
Ruba’s level of English proficiency “seems almost impossible” given that she did not go to school between the ages of 10 and 15, Wade said. It shows a high level of determination and intelligence.
She wants to become many things — doctor, police officer, lawyer — and she has her future lined out, Wade said. She has exact plans, down to profession and title, for the year 2046, he said.
“She is, in many ways, a caged bird who can see what’s around her in America and wonder if she can escape the cage,” he said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking … to see people who have such big dreams and such talent and not know for sure that it’s going to be possible.”
Khaled has seen his country destroyed, his people killed, some in the most gruesome manner including chemical warfare, and now he wants to take a very difficult path to dedicate his life to helping others, Wade said. And despite obstacles that would stop almost anyone, he has maintained a positive attitude and an incredible drive.
“It really is unexplainable how his English proficiency can be so high,” Wade said.
Ruba and Khaled are, in many ways, exceptional, he said, but their motivation for learning also mirrors that of the academy’s students, many of whom, despite the most challenging backgrounds, end up among the brightest and most sincere learners. Their achievements are all the more noteworthy because many of them get home late at night because they work after school to earn money to help people in their home countries who live in even more difficult circumstances.
They also understand the struggles of new classmates, which helps make the academy a determined, joyful collaborative, he said. They show empathy, understand culture shock and easily absorb new kids. And a month later, when another new kid arrives, those who arrived just a month earlier become the veterans and depart their wisdom on the new arrivals and tell them that things are going to be OK.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Wade said.
One eye on the old world
Ruba is quick to flash a smile. She laughs when her English makes it difficult to express how she feels. She also displays a certain feistiness when confronted with adversity: She tells of an encounter with a Saudi official after the family had fled Yemen.
“You don’t have to do those things in my country,” she said she told him.
He got angry, she said, and told her to be quiet or he would call the police.
In Louisville, on her way home from school, a girl, seeing Ruba’s hijab, told her to go home. “This is not your country,” the girl yelled.
Ruba shot back, “I know Jesus more than you.”
But, she said, it’s difficult to make friends, and she’s happy only sometimes.
“Sometimes sad,” she said. “Sometimes lonely.”
She said she misses her friends, her neighbors, her diary. And Yemen’s warm weather and food.
Her improving English is helping: She read the first two Harry Potter novels in Arabic. She’s reading the third in English.
Wade has given her a new diary, in which she draws and writes daily.
But hearing continued depressing news from Yemen weighs on her heart.
This month, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former leader announced that he would now seek peace with Saudi Arabia. Only days later, he was killed by his former allies, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
While members of the Alsabbagh family are enjoying life in Louisville, they, too, are keeping a close eye on what happens in their home country.
So far, the news has not been encouraging. Neighbors, friends and relatives remain in peril because of continued bombings and lack of vital resources. Soldiers have surrounded Douma, Khaled said, which means people can flee no longer. What little food gets into the city is so expensive that it is unaffordable even for those who have a job, which few do.
Only last week one of Khaled’s cousins was killed, leaving a wife and four young children. Sometimes, his mother still weeps at night.
The elder Alsabbagh said, through his son, that Louisville is beautiful and its people are nice. He thanked the city and state governments for welcoming the family, and all the people and organizations, including KRM, the ESL academy and medical personnel, that have helped to ease the family’s transition to a new life.
Khaled, too, said he is thankful for his new life and opportunities. It’s much easier now to sleep comfortably, he said.
“Don’t have to worry about bombs,” he said.
CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct Al Saidi’s last name.