Monroe High senior fled Iraq, now dreams of being an architect

MONROE — Tiba Ahmed dreams of creating something beautiful.

The 19-year-old wants to be an architect. That dream formed when she was a child living in Iraq.

Her family’s home was destroyed. Her school was bombed.

The more destruction she saw, the more she wanted to balance it with creation.

Years later, in Istanbul, her love for architecture deepened. She visited a grand building that had served as a Christian church and as a mosque over the years. People of all faiths walked in to admire the building. It struck her that no one cared who you were or where you came from or what god you prayed to. They were there for the beauty of the place.

“So the Christians and Muslims meet inside, together, and there is no racism and no hate and everyone can be together,” she said. “I hope I build something that brings the people together.”

Ahmed’s family fled Iraq when she was about 12 years old and spent four years as refugees in Turkey, waiting for permission to come to the U.S.

She now is a senior at Monroe High School. Her class schedule includes physics, pre-calculus, English and a SAT prep course. She tried taking the SAT a few years ago and did poorly because she couldn’t speak English. She didn’t start learning the language until 2013.

Ahmed lives with her parents and three younger siblings. Her father works at an auto body shop. In Iraq, he was a miller, grinding grain. Her family is Sunni, and her father was told not to sell flour to Shiite Muslims, the other major denomination of Islam. He refused. Everyone needs to eat, he said.

“The war happened and the conflict happened inside of the mill when we were there,” Ahmed said.

Her father was told his wife and children would be killed. They fled to Turkey.

“It was a safer place, but it was hard for all the refugees,” Ahmed said. “We are just waiting. We don’t know what is the future, we don’t know if we are going to get the good life. Most of the people I know, they still are waiting.”

Her dad had set aside money to help them get by, but most of the refugees struggled to survive. Parents couldn’t work and kids couldn’t go to school. Tiba studied as much as she could at home. She learned to speak Turkish, though she can’t write or read it. Her first language is Arabic. She often drew pictures inspired by Turkish architecture.

The years in Turkey weren’t the first disruption to Tiba’s education. When she was 11, the school she attended in Iraq was destroyed by a bomb. No one was killed in the blast, she said. Students were prepared for explosions and gunfire.

“It was normal,” she said. “We go to school and there are men with guns, but we study and we think it is normal. But it is so hard. Where I was in Iraq, you go someplace and you don’t know if you will make it home.”

Now Tiba is working hard to catch up on credits. She’s taken online courses and stayed after school. She applied to the University of Washington and plans to apply to other schools. She refuses to put her life on hold because of her past.

“I want to tell everybody that everyone should be in the best place,” she said. “I am not choosing to be a refugee. That is something life chose for me and my friends.”

She’s heard people say Muslims are terrorists. It makes her sad, but a teacher encouraged her to try and change their minds. She speaks in front of history classes. She tries to give a voice to refugees. Four others go to school with her and they’ve become good friends.

Art and history are Ahmed’s favorite classes. Art is her passion and history is where she gets to share her culture.

“I explain to them that when (refugees) come here, it is not terrorism. They come to study, to live a better life,” she said. “There are good people and there are bad people.”

Ahmed has an easy smile and dark eyes full of hope. She shares her dream of becoming an architect with whomever will listen. She wants people to understand.

“I come here to make something beautiful,” she said. “I want to tell them you can do this. Whoever you are, wherever you are, you can do it because you want it. The hardest things can make something beautiful in the end.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439;

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