LYNNWOOD — When Naji Ali described his “long, scary, worrisome and hard journey” to become a commencement speaker at Edmonds Community College, he was not referring to his calculus, physics and engineering courses.
Nor was it the balance of holding down a job, and sometimes two, to help his family while challenging himself with demanding classes taught in English, his third language and one he is still learning.
For Ali, the journey began with soldiers on the streets and airstrikes from above. More than 400,000 people have died in his native Syria during six years of civil war that involves overlapping conflicts among several groups. It is a country where civilians, including children, have died when the government used chemical weapons to quell opposition. Nearly half of Syrians have fled their homes, according to some news reports.
Ali, a college student at the time of the first airstrikes, left with his parents and siblings. They are legal immigrants who now live in south Snohomish County.
His first name — Naji — means survivor in Arabic.
Despite his ordeal, his optimism is disarming and offers a stark contrast to the endless headlines of violence and turmoil in Syria. He is thankful for opportunity, hungry for knowledge and determined to do well.
Ali, 23, is of Palestinian heritage. He grew up in the Yarmouk Camp, a nearly square-mile area in the Syrian capital of Damascus, one of the planet’s oldest cities. The camp was home to more than 112,000 registered refugees before the civil war. It became a battle zone in 2012. By 2015, only 20,000 people remained.
In many ways, it mirrors the country. In six years, more than 4 million people have fled Syria. Ali fondly remembers a time when his country seemed so accepting, taking in refugees from other troubled nations. The desperate exodus gives him heartache.
It was a cold winter in December 2012 when a Syrian army airstrike shook the neighborhood. Ali’s family knew it was time to leave.
“The day before we left, I walked through the city of Damascus, and I smelled the jasmine in the air,” Ali told his fellow graduates in his commencement speech at EdCC earlier this month. “I had a feeling that I would never see this city again, and the next day I left what I called home and one of the most beautiful places on Earth. We left our accomplishments, hopes and dreams behind and fled to safety and peace.”
What followed was a series of moves over the course of a year. For a short time, the family stayed at his father’s office in Syria. It then took up residence at a relative’s home in Lebanon. Then came the interview at the embassy in Dubai, and finally word they would immigrate to the rainy northwest corner of the continental United States.
Ali looked up Washington state online. It was described as the Evergreen state and home to Boeing and Microsoft. He was eager to start anew.
The morning the plane landed at Sea-Tac International Airport, he flew over the Space Needle and Safeco Field. An immigration officer told the group, “Welcome home,” which somehow felt reassuring.
As the car headed north on I-5, Ali spotted a large “W” as they passed the University of Washington. Perhaps, he thought to himself, he’d get to go back to college.
Ali’s mood changed in the weeks and months that followed. His thoughts turned to Syria and to friends he’d lost.
He grew homesick but knew there was no going home.
“I was like: What am I doing here?” he said. “I didn’t speak English.”
For a time, the family of five shared a one-bedroom apartment in north King County, with the siblings sleeping in the living room.
There was little money. Each day, he’d wake up and think of finding work and enrolling in school.
Ali eventually found a job as a dishwasher at an IHOP. He thought it might help him learn English, but his co-workers in the kitchen also were just learning the language. What little English he’d learned in Syria wasn’t proving that helpful.
He enrolled in English as a second language classes at Edmonds Community College. He found someone willing to take a chance on him as a cashier at a T.J. Maxx despite the language barrier. The interaction with strangers helped enormously. Between school and work, he quickly became fluent. To this day, he still carefully monitors his pronouns and verbs to make sure they agree.
An ESL instructor had given him tips for looking for work. He used all of them when he applied for a position at the EdCC’s International Student Services office, which serves roughly 1,500 students from 62 countries. One of the suggestions was to follow up with whoever is hiring.
Naji did just that, again and again.
“I clearly remember him coming to the office every few days to talk with me to see when we would be interviewing for this position,” said Kristin Prasanna, front office manager for International Student Services. “He was always so polite, respectful and persistent. His determination to get this position became clearer to me as I later learned more about his story of growing up in Syria.”
Ali had a knack for making all students feel welcome, no matter what country they came from or what language they spoke, Prasanna said. He made friends, many from far away: Albania, Japan, Libya, Nigeria and elsewhere.
He landed a job at the college library. Lurana Culligan, the interim circulation manager at the time, remembers in the job interview that Ali had hoped to work at the front desk, again to improve his English. The job was shelving books.
To do so, he had to learn the Library of Congress call number system. He came back the next day reporting that he had studied the system overnight and was ready. As it turned out, he really was. He’d also realized that shelving the books would help him improve his English. Soon, he was spotting books that had been misshelved.
“He’s so conscientious,” Culligan said. “He is a beautiful person, a truly lovely human being.”
The campus jobs offered him the chance to make an impression on behalf of other Syrians. One person at a time, he wanted others to see his optimism.
“I thought I might be a good reflection for the Syrians, that I can show them who I am and a lot of people will change their minds,” he said. “Usually, they look for the darkness in Syria. There are a lot of hopeful people.”
Ali has applied at the University of Washington in both Seattle and Bothell. He wants to continue his engineering studies.
He’s particularly interested in technology breakthroughs that make prosthetic limbs more accessible and effective.
Several co-workers and fellow students nominated him to be a commencement speaker. They knew he had a compelling story to tell.
Miki Aspree, associate director of International Student Services, was one of those to suggest Ali to the commencement committee. She’d met him as a customer over the cashier’s counter at T.J. Maxx. That day, she jokingly told him he should apply for an opening with her department. He did just that.
She said she loves the positive energy he brings to work each day as well as his personal story, one she believes opens windows to greater understanding.
“I learned a great deal from him about his part of the world,” she said. “It seems more personal now when I see things in the news.”
In his closing remarks at commencement, Ali offered advice from his own experience that has served him well. The essence is this: Work harder than everyone around you, have ambition, and dream.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.