Yusra Mohamad, whose family had to flee fighting in Somalia, has embraced high school life in the U.S.
When Yusra Mohamad, age twenty-one, is called to present her qualifications for Class Leader, she is ready. "I am friend," she announces. She looks at her classmates—refugees and immigrants from violence-wracked countries around the globe—before continuing. "I am hard work." Her teacher nods. "I am—" Yusra pauses, trying to recall the word from the day’s vocabulary lesson. Suddenly she nods, remembering. "And I am very much punctual." She beams, then sits down. The class applauds.
The teacher smiles at her. "That you are, Yusra," she says. "I don't think you've been late all year."
One by one, a representative from each of the other languages represented in the class—Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, Spanish, French, Arabic, Somali— stands up to make their case. The adjectives used by these young people—all categorized as Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education, or SLIFE, by Boston Public Schools—parallel Yusra's; they describe themselves as friendly, hard-working, responsible, dependable. To a visitor, other adjectives come to mind as well: worldly, resilient, strong.
Yusra attends the Boston International High School/Newcomers Academy (BINcA), a public school serving 500 immigrants.
Indeed, when Yusra describes her twenty-one years on the planet, she hardly blanches when recounting the series of events that preceded her enrollment at Boston International High School/Newcomers Academy (BINcA), a public school in Boston that serves 500 immigrants. They represent more than forty countries and speak more than twenty-five languages, and more than half of them have lived in the United States for less than eighteen months.
Yusra was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1995, the year the United Nations withdrew from the country, following unsuccessful attempts to establish a central authority in the midst of a still-raging civil war. In 2003, Yusra's family, which then consisted of her mother, stepfather, four brothers, and sister, moved to Jedda, Saudi Arabia, where they lived for two years before moving to Syria, where they lived for seven. In the course of this time, four more siblings were born, and Yusra's parents feared for the family's safety.
They applied for asylum in the United States; before they were able to enter, however, they spent two and a half years waiting in Turkey, where Yusra says she never learned enough of the language to do well at school.
At nineteen, Yusra and her family moved to Boston, where she, her parents, and six of her siblings share a one-room apartment as they attempt, once again, to learn the language and the rhythms of daily life.
The United States is different—less utopian, and more well, normal—than Yusra had imagined. “When I come here, I say, 'It's okay, it's normal,’” she says. “Like other places." And there were other, more unexpected factors. "When we come here, we say, 'It's so cold!" she says, smiling.
The adjustment was hard on her. “The first week, I say, 'I don't believe I'm in Boston.' I wake up and I think I'm in Turkey!" Yusra recalls. She has learned to speak English, though she still cannot read or write it, or even recognize most letter sounds. She has made friends, most of whom are other Somali immigrants. Additionally, she has thrown herself into new pursuits and avocations: running club, violin, drawing—she keeps a sketchpad with her at all times, and wants to go into fashion design—and playing with her cat, Ricky. To her mother’s dismay, her extracurriculars keep her at school every day well past dark. Yusra loves the all-consuming nature of American high school.
At BINcA, Yusra is not the only student who wears the hijab, but she is still in the minority. Recently, a picture of her on a wall of a classroom was crossed out hastily in pen; whether this is attributable to racial prejudice remains unknown. Before Trump was elected, Yusra says, she did not encounter any prejudice. In the past few months, however, she has sensed a change. A few weeks ago, she said, she was shoveling snow in the street outside her family’s apartment with her sister when she realized that a group of young men huddled a few feet away were insulting them, saying “bad words” about the hijab and about Islam. Many think this way, she says, but few express these prejudices out loud; Trump’s election, along with the so-called “Muslim Ban” that prohibits immigration from seven majority Muslim countries—has brought out frightening prejudice.
Before Trump was elected, Yusra says, she did not encounter any prejudice. In the past few months, however, she has sensed a change.
The increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has been so substantial that, like many large urban districts around the country, the Boston Public School District has issued strongly-worded statements emphasizing its commitment to protect immigrant and refugee students. In February, the district launched a website, which offers information and resources, available in fifteen languages, for educators, students, and families, ranging from hate crime hotline phone numbers to Know Your Rights information sheets to suggestions for dealing with children’s fears about deportation.
Though many Muslim refugees in the district feel unwelcome and unwanted, Yusra says the actions of a few—including the President—do not represent the country as a whole. “It’s not all people. It’s just some people,” she says.
“I think it will change,” she continues. “But the first person who will have to change is the President.”
Yusra—who has lived on three continents, as a resident and a refugee, in wartime and in peace—views the current situation in the United States from a removed, reflective perspective. “Nothing stays forever like this. Something bad is coming, then something good is coming.”
Is she worried about what is coming? She shakes her head, then smiles.