We Are America

Voices of the Nation's Future

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Photo ofYousif Jawhar

It was a thirteen-hour flight from Iraq to Illinois on a Boeing 747. We landed at O’Hare Airport close to midnight. Dark and cold, there was a blizzard and close to three feet of snow. This was my first time seeing  snow like this. I was only seven and I didn’t even know what “Hi” meant. It was a crazy world out there and I was just starting my new life. As I was leaving the airport a security guard came up and said, “See you again.” At the time, I didn’t know what that meant because I had a long journey to learn English.  My family and I stayed with my cousin for about a month until my dad acquired a job and we could afford a small apartment. It was small, really small. Later that month I started preschool. At the time, I knew some English but not a whole lot. I was just so scared to start school because I didn’t know how to speak to other students. I made a single friend and I did not speak to anyone except him. He was the only person I talked to in English, including my family. As I learned English, I was still too scared to speak it.  When I was in first grade, I slowly understood English but I would not speak it. I was scared that I would mess up. I heard so many people speak English so I started speaking English at my house. One time I was at McDonald’s and I wanted ketchup but I didn’t know how to say it. I explained to the worker what it looked like so that I didn’t embarrass myself saying it incorrectly. After a while, the guy gave up and said to my face, “You people should just leave the country.” Back then, I could have cared less about what he said, and that’s because I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me. This is where I started to question my family, “Where are we? Why are we here?”  Meanwhile, my family and I settled in. My dad bought a car for around a thousand dollars, and my mom stayed home. She didn’t have a car yet, nor did she have a job. At times, I would remember my old house back in Iraq. I would think about friends, my school, and all the toys I had. I had so many toys, and I had only brought one with me. I still have that toy at my house. That was really the only thing I kept from Iraq.  One afternoon when I was eight, I heard my dad say to my mom, “We are getting a new house.” I was so excited we would finally have a bigger place to sleep in. Around this time, I also started to talk to teachers because I start- ed gaining confidence, and I thought I needed to speak English because in America, speaking the language is crucial. Somedays I would remember the 13-hour airplane ride and how I got here. It was a difficult transition but it was better off in the long run. I only knew Arabic at that time, but the struggle to learn English was an important act of resilience.  Eight years ago I landed at O’Hare Airport, not knowing what anything meant. Today I’m 15, I stand up for others and I stand up for myself. It took eight years but I feel very confident making new friends and talking in pub- lic. I now know that I can stand up for myself and no one can take that away from me. 

© Yousif Jawhar. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person’s teacher.