Iraqi brother and sister, Saif and Elaf pursue their American dream

11/26/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

Students sit at computer work stations in Mount Tahoma's graphic design class, as teacher, Peter Johnson explains the next assignment Google translate pops up on many computer screens. Among the students translating his words are brother and sister, Saif and Elaf.

Saif (pronounced say-EEF) and Elaf (pronounced EEL-off) left their home country of Iraq in 2013 to escape wartime violence. They moved to Turkey and waited for a chance to come to the United States.

 "We were in Baghdad," Saif said. "One day I was going to school. I see a lot of people dying and terrible things. My dad, he tried to save us and protect us. He say we have to leave. So we left Iraq. We lived in Turkey. We started from zero. I worked; my dad worked. It was four years we wait. I didn't go to school."

In 2017 the family's dream of coming to the United States came true. As the family boarded the plane in Turkey, their father said, "From here we start our dream." They see America as a place where any goal or dream can be achieved with hard work and determination.

"I feel so good," Elaf said, "because here there is a future. There is a good life and safe place."

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Most of what they knew of America, they had learned from movies and videos—and many things about Tacoma and Mount Tahoma High School surprised them.

 "First day I was not expecting a school this big and this cool," Saif said. "I felt like I was at a university."

Saif and Elaf describe that in Iraq boys and girls attend different schools and most people share a similar ethnic background.

"The first thing the color. The second thing the boys and girls together. In Iraq it's separate. The color, we don't have like blonde boys and girls. But here I see difference—the black people and the white people and the Mexican people and the Asian people and the Arabic people mix," Saif said.

Elaf was surprised to find that she was the only student wearing a hijab, a head covering worn in public by many women in the Muslim faith. "I wasn't expecting no Arabic people or hijab girls. I was like shocked there was nobody. It was a new thing to the school and the students," she said.

For Saif, seeing photography and graphic design classes offered at his high school was a welcome difference. "When I see photography I was very happy. And when I saw the computer I was very happy. We have some computers in school in my country. But we don't have photography class and graphic design in high school. No. Here I see graphic design and photography is very cool."

In Iraq and Turkey, Saif's father worked as a photographer, and Saif shares his father's passion for photography and spent years working alongside him.

Saif began coming to see Johnson, his teacher, during lunch and after school to ask questions and learn as much as he could about photography and design.

"Saif is so eager to learn and grow. He has taken what we're learning in class and used it to create his own business," Johnson said. "He even came to me last year wanting to learn about video so he could film a wedding."Saif and Elaf_pic2.jpg

Saif describes photography as a way to connect without the need for translation: "Photography is language. If I don't speak English, and you don't speak Arabic, but we have same language at the same time, the camera. My feeling and your feeling. I will show you my feeling, and you will show me your feeling. But we will understand each other in the same time and the same picture."

Johnson, in his second year at Mount Tahoma, is growing the school's offerings for photography, graphic design, and video. These courses fall under Career and Technical Education, classes aimed at giving students workforce skills.

"The goal is to give students career skills, so it's exciting to have a student literally using what they've learned in class to earn money," said Mr. Johnson.

Beyond the photography and graphic design courses, the diversity of Mount Tahoma has helped Saif and Elaf feel comfortable and make friends.

 "There is a big emphasis here at Mount Tahoma on learning about other cultures," Johnson said. "In any one of my classes, I may have students speaking Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Thai, Samoan, and Vietnamese or students using ASL (American sign language). It's one of the things that makes our school great."

Each year the school hosts a Multicultural Assembly—an opportunity for students to share their families' cultures and to learn about their classmates. Last year's assembly was a turning point for Saif and Elaf. At first, they were reluctant to participate, but when they found out their father could also join with them, they decided to give it a try.

Saif and Elaf_pic3.jpgSaif describes that day as, "Amazing, I felt accepted. My Dad came dressed in traditional clothing. We danced the chobi. It's very popular and famous in my country. When I was wearing my Arabic outfit, many students wanted to take photos with me. A lot of students when I wore that thought I looked like a king, I was laughing inside myself."

Elaf smiles and agrees that day made her feel special and accepted too. "Here, everybody is from everywhere. Everybody is now from this country. It makes you very comfortable," Elaf said.

Saif and Elaf continue to pursue their American dreams, consistently looking to their futures and working hard.

"It is amazing chance to be in America," Saif said.