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Refugee from Iraq earns SCC Learn to Dream Achiever Award

One day, Safa Salih may own a construction engineering firm or a fashion design company. Her talents and interests are as diverse as her background.

Salih, an Academic Transfer student at Southeast Community College, is the recipient of the Learn to Dream Achiever Award for the 2011 Fall Quarter.

“I’m so thankful for the Learn to Dream program,” said Salih, 22. “It has provided me the right step to finish my education. I’m very happy to have the money to go to college.”

The award is presented to an SCC student on the Learn to Dream Scholarship who has completed at least two successful quarters of classes at the College and who has demonstrated personal improvement and achievement. 

Salih, a 2011 graduate of Lincoln High School, learned about the scholarship from a guidance counselor.

“There are so many people who can’t pay for college and don’t know about the Learn to Dream Scholarship,” she said. “I wish that everyone who wants to finish college knew about this scholarship.”

Initially the Learn to Dream Scholarship was a partnership between Lincoln’s private and public high schools, SCC, and generous funding from Nelnet and Union Bank & Trust. The first of its kind in Nebraska, Learn to Dream pays for tuition and fees up to 45 quarter credits at SCC for qualified students. Since its inception the scholarship program has expanded to include all graduating high school seniors in SCC’s 15-county district who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Benefactors within school districts outside Lincoln provide funding for those students.

Salih’s story is one of anxiety, perseverance and contentment.

She was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and lived her formative years while the Iraq War was raging all around her and her family: mother, father and two brothers. By the time Salih completed her junior year of high school, it had become too dangerous to remain in Baghdad, so the family crossed the border into Syria.

But danger remained close by.

“I did not get a (high school) diploma in Syria because we could not provide transcripts from my school in Baghdad,” she said. “Plus, in Syria I had to pay money to go to high school because I was Iraqi.”

Her father, Jamal Salih, was kidnapped upon returning to Iraq to retrieve his children’s transcripts. 

“They wanted money for my dad, but we didn’t have any to give,” she said. Her father was in the jewelry business.

Safa said her father was tortured during his four years in captivity, which ended in 2010 after Safa’s grandfather sold his house and paid the ransom. 

“We don’t know who his captors are,” Safa said. “They broke his nose, and he can’t hear out of his right ear. He always has headaches. We couldn’t believe he was alive.”

Younger brother Humam Salih also was kidnapped and held for about five hours.

“We paid a lot of money to get him back,” Safa said. 

Safa, her mother Kamelah Jassem and Humam arrived in Lincoln in June 2009. Older brother Naser Salih attends college in the Ukraine. He’s studying to become an engineer.

Safa said the United Nations and Catholic Social Services helped her and her family, classified as Iraq refugees, get to the United States. Her father joined the family in Lincoln last July.

She enrolled at SCC last summer and spent her first two quarters taking classes in English and math. She’s currently taking American History, trigonometry and composition II. She plans to graduate from SCC in summer 2013.

After SCC, Safa plans to attend either the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or the University of Nebraska-Omaha to study engineering. She hopes to pursue a master’s degree as well.

“I love to draw and design,” said Safa, who is just as comfortable designing buildings as she is clothing. She has designed and sewn more than a dozen dresses and tops, including the dress she wore to prom last spring.

“I’m creative, and I like to share my ideas,” she said. “I’d like to see my buildings someday in Nebraska.”

Safa holds a work-study job in SCC’s Child Development Center on the Lincoln Campus. She said the Learn to Dream Scholarship helped ease the burden placed on her mother who, despite being a psychologist, works two jobs that pay minimum wage to support the family. Her mother’s skills did not transfer to the U.S. Her father holds a degree in engineering, but he is disabled and can’t work.

Safa said she feels comfortable in Lincoln and is getting used to the American way of life.

“I like America very much,” she said. “I like everything. People are very nice and friendly. Nobody makes you feel strange.”

Although she misses her grandparents and other family members who remain in Iraq, Safa said she does not miss the places of Baghdad. She eventually plans to become a U.S. citizen.


Published: February 28, 2012, Updated: March 9, 2012

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Safa Salih, 2011 Lincoln High School graduate