Waterford teen who escaped Syrian civil war forges future as pharmacist

Raghad Idlbi, 18, of Waterford, a member of Waterford High School's Class of 2015, at her home Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Raghad Idlbi, 18, of Waterford, a member of Waterford High School's Class of 2015, at her home Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Waterford — Raghad Idlbi thought American high school would be like what she saw in movies like "Mean Girls" or "High School Musical" — packs of girls roaming the halls together, rampant bullying.

“I thought it was going to be so horrible,” she recalled, seated in her living room one evening last month, adding that she discovered after starting classes as a freshman at Waterford High School, “It’s not actually like that.”

Raghad and her family migrated to the United States from Syria in 2012 to escape the violent fallout of civil war that began in 2011, pitting protesters who had been seeking democratic reforms against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Raghad’s family was not politically aligned, but still she and her relatives faced danger. Raghad’s great uncle was kidnapped just weeks before the family’s planned departure for Connecticut. Her father, Ghiath Idlbi, said he decided to keep his children at home while the family negotiated the release of his uncle. Kidnappers would at times kidnap relatives of the kidnapped, Raghad explained.

Six months after the family arrived in the U.S., where Ghiath had taken over two gas stations, they learned that Ghiath’s factory located 15 miles outside of Damascus had been looted. Raghad said the site for manufacturing of control panels for phone companies was now “just like a building.”

“They stole everything and we don’t even know what they did with it,” she said.

Raghad’s guidance counselor, Leah O’Connor, said Raghad’s difficult experiences before arriving at Waterford High are factors in Raghad’s mature approach to tackling the challenges she’s faced as an immigrant and English language learner.

“I think at 18 years old, when you’ve lived and breathed a hardship like that, not much else can faze you,” said O’Connor, adding, “She’s a resilient person, you can just tell that about her.”

Chief among Raghad’s new challenges was keeping up with academics while learning English. She said the English classes she had taken in school in Syria were similar to the French and Spanish courses at most American high schools — rigorous enough for a basic conversation, but not immersive enough to prepare students to live in country with that language.

Struggling with English didn’t just affect Raghad in humanities classes. The language barrier also impacted her performance in math, her favorite subject.

She stayed after school to get extra help from teachers. Now, roughly three years later, she is taking advanced English courses, Advanced Placement Chemistry and has performed well in math classes.

Outside of school, Raghad teaches Islamic studies and Arabic at the Islamic Center of New London in Groton. In her free time, she likes riding her bike, cooking and playing tennis. Her 16-year-old sister Raneem accompanies her often for bike rides and tennis.

As she prepares for graduation, she’s focused on school work and helping her mother care for her four younger brothers and sisters.

In the fall, Raghad will attend the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut, with plans to transfer to the Storrs campus the following fall. Her goal is to become a pharmacist. Raghad said pharmacy incorporates math, science and medicine in a way that makes it a perfect balance of her interests and passions. Her father wanted her to be a doctor, but she said she doesn’t like blood. He said he’s happy with her choice.

Raghad’s immigration status — she has temporary protective status — means she is not eligible for several forms of financial aid for college. She plans this summer on getting a job and is looking into loans for school. She also hopes to win some scholarships.

The immigration status also means Raghad, her parents and siblings can’t visit Syria. While her father’s parents and some of his siblings live in Waterford and other parts of the Northeast, the family of Raghad’s mother, Heba Zamrik, is still in Syria.

Zamrik’s parents were unable to get a visa to visit the U.S. when she was pregnant with Raghad’s youngest sibling, her 2-year-old brother Yazan.

The separation has been difficult for the family. Zamrik teared up as Raghad described her admiration for her grandmother Hadia Rifaai.

“Just the idea of helping, she taught me how helping others is important,” said Raghad.

She said that in her youth she hasn’t had much opportunity to help people the way her grandmother has yet, but that she hopes to grow into someone equally generous.

“I just try to do the same as her.”

t.townsend@theday.com

Twitter: @ConnecticuTess

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