Beating the odds to college completion: Bilal’s story

I have been working at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s Dell Scholars Program for six years, and I’ve met many incredible students.  They are all truly remarkable in their own ways and because of their own paths.  I want to introduce you to one of our new Dell Scholars who has already begun to beat the odds.

Meet Bilal Lafta.  Bilal was born in Baghdad, Iraq and lived there until 2005 with his family which includes his father, mother and younger brother and sister.  Bilal’s education was cut short when his school in Baghdad was forced to close after a nearby bomb blast.  Bilal describes that day:

“I remember holding my little brother by the hand as we watched the doors to our school close for the last time. A bomb had just gone off, and our teachers had dismissed us early. At home, we were greeted by our mother, who always waited and prayed outside when explosions shook the neighborhood. These events seemed almost normal until later that night when American troops came to our house and told us we would have to evacuate the city. It was heartbreaking, but we packed our belongings and left Baghdad soon after, leaving our friends, our family, and our home behind us. I got into a car with my father, while my brother, mother, and sister got into a different car.

After driving a few hours, I asked my father, “Where is Mama?” That was the first and last time I saw my father cry. We lived in a refugee camp in Baqubah for a few months after that, and I eventually learned that my family had been separated because my mother is Shia and my father is Sunni, and the ruling party did not condone the mixing of religious groups. Through our forced evacuation, separation, and escape to America, I learned to cherish family and always embracing diversity as a positive influence.”

Bilal and his family eventually reunited in Egypt, staying there two years before moving to Tucson, Ariz., and finally to Boston in 2010.  But he still has had to manage tremendous responsibilities at home.  According to Bilal:

“As the oldest child in my family, I have many obligations and responsibilities to manage. I was the first person in my family to learn English, so when we came to America, I became the family interpreter. To this day, I still translate for my parents on a daily basis. Since I was ten years old, I’ve been thrown into professional settings to speak to adults in English and relay the information I receive to my parents in Arabic. As my confidence in interpreting grew stronger, the conversations I was trusted with became more important. I recall the time when I spoke to a cardiologist before my father’s heart surgery.

I have also done my best to lessen my parent’s financial burdens by working multiple part-time jobs throughout the year. Between working, assisting my parents, and caring for my two younger siblings, I sometimes worry that I might jeopardize academics. I have come to realize that family is everything and these sacrifices are always worth the effort.”

Even with all of the additional responsibility, Bilal was able to graduate as the valedictorian of his high school, Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park. And he will be the first in his family to attend college when he arrives at Brown University this fall to study biomedical engineering.

Bilal is a shining example of the type of GPA we look for in our Dell Scholars: grit, potential and ambition. He is among 350 other Dell Scholars – and thousands of other first-generation, low-income students – who will be attending college in the fall. His future is bright and I cannot wait to see what he accomplishes.

Bilal is a shining example of the type of GPA we look for in our Dell Scholars: grit, potential and ambition. He is among 350 other Dell Scholars – and thousands of other first-generation, low-income students – who will be attending college in the fall. His future is bright and I cannot wait to see what he accomplishes.

In his own words: “There are so many doors out there for them [other low-income, first-generation students]. I think all that students have to do is walk up to that door and knock on it.  I knocked on every door I saw.”

Find other news about Bilal below:

  1. Boston Globe: Boston celebrates its valedictorians and their disparate stories
  2. Boston Globe: Boston’s faces of Excellence
  3. Boston Herald: Refugee travels ‘full circle’ to be top of his class
  4. WCVB: Valedictorian of Boston school was forced to leave hometown of Baghdad
  5. WCVB: Valedictorian at Boston school recounts emotional story of escaping Baghdad
  6. WBUR/NPR: ‘I Didn’t Want To Carry A Weapon, I Wanted To Carry A Book’: Boston Valedictorian Fled War
  7. Fox 25: BPS valedictorians gather for honors luncheon
  8. Patch: Meet Charlestown Valedictorian Bilal Lafta
  9. YouTube: Valedictorians of 2016 – Boston Public Schools