Marine Science Magnet School senior doesn’t take her education for granted
Editor’s note: For the past 30 years, The Day has profiled remarkable seniors at each of the region’s high school during graduation season.
Groton ― Sham Qarqour doesn’t take her education for granted.
As a Syrian-born student growing up in Saudi Arabia, the Marine Science Magnet High School senior went to an international school, the best her parents could find. But she found the education standard wasn’t the best quality when compared to the additional opportunities in the United States, where she moved as a refugee at age 10.
“As a Syrian, you grow up and you know you’ve been stripped of your country, you’ve been stripped of your loved ones, but they can’t take away your education, because you’re going to get it no matter what,” Qarqour said. “You’re going to go after it and fight for it, and that was really one of my goals in life.”
She wants to use her education to help people who didn’t get the same advantages she did and is headed to Harvard University, where she intends to study human regenerative biology and then go to medical school.
Qarqour will see if she can compete in fencing at Harvard― which she did at Fitch High School ― and would love to join the debate team, an activity the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately ended at Marine Science Magnet.
It’s easy to see why she’s interested in debate.
Qarqour said reading the book “Fallacious Reasoning: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies” had a huge impact on her life, and she’s spent a lot of time talking to her father about critical thinking and biases.
“We talked about how the world has a lot of problems, and unfortunately, you can’t fix those problems until you fix the way people think about those problems,” Qarqour said. “People’s mindset ― the way they think, the way they act towards things ― can be very flawed.”
English teacher Amanda Mann, who has had Qarqour in her classes for three years, said the book was the one Qarqour chose to read ahead of AP English Language and Composition, when students could read any book they wanted.
Mann said Qarqour is always applying what she learns in one class to another, and characterized her as modest and humble, soft-spoken but able to command a room.
“She wants to suck the marrow out of her education. She wants to really know, really understand. She doesn’t want to submit work just to get it done,” Mann said.
She concluded with a laugh, “I have no idea what she’s going to do with her great brain, but I know it’s going to be good, because (she has) such a combination of intellectual rigor and intellectual curiosity, and just profound human generosity.”
Acclimating to the U.S.
At 17, Qarqour has already had vastly different experiences than her four younger siblings: While she was born in Syria, her next sibling was born in Saudi Arabia and the three youngest in the United States.
She grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her father ran a security company. Unlike her siblings, she has the memory of doing a lot more for the Islam holiday of Eid, being in a majority Muslim country.
Because of the war, Qarqour hasn’t visited Syria since around 2011. Her family decided to move to the U.S. and lived with Qarqour’s aunt in Groton for a couple of months before finding a home elsewhere in Mystic, and moving more recently to Waterford.
“We were leaving our family behind, and honestly that’s been a struggle my entire life, being raised away from my family and away from my culture,” Qarqour said. But she knows it’s “what’s going to give me the best future.”
She said after coming here on refugee asylum, the family members only got their green cards in the last several months ― meaning they can now visit family in Saudi Arabia, where her grandparents and cousins live.
Qarqour found the English she had learned abroad wasn’t sufficient for how fast people speak here, and she was scared. She was pulled out of “Fun Friday”― playing outside and watching movies ― in fifth grade to catch up with her classmates.
She was amazed schools in America had libraries and started checking out more books than she could count.
Another adjustment was the food, going from eating grape leaves, falafel and shawarma ― which she still eats at home ― to pizza and mac and cheese in school. Qarqour said her family has Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian friends, and her mother is happy to have friends with whom she can speak Arabic.
Finding community in high school
When Qarqour left Cutler Middle School for Marine Science Magnet, she had just started wearing the hijab, and she was excited but nervous.
She said people who knew her from Cutler treated her the same, and she was not judged but “welcomed with open arms,” a relief considering she didn’t know what people would say or think. But the decision to hear the hijab wasn’t difficult when it came to her thoughts and beliefs.
“To me, my hijab is almost like a crown you wear above your head,” Qarqour said. She loves the idea “that people are going to judge me based on my thoughts and my ideas and what I have to say; they’re not judging me because I look a certain way.”
Her family attends the Islamic Center of New London, in Groton, the only mosque in the region. She said the daily prayers and fasting remind her of her purpose, of her standards and morals.
“For me, my religion isn’t just a belief system, in terms of ‘Who is God?’ and ‘What is the end like?’ My religion has taught me how to be honorable, how to be kind,” Qarqour said.
It meant so much to Qarqour to become the first hijabi ― a woman who wears a hijab ― student council president at the school. Her work on student council has included helping bring back the student-faculty basketball game and organizing school spirit days.
She also held a fundraiser for Syrian victims of the February earthquake, raising almost $900 through selling green ribbons she made. Qarqour sent the money to Molham Team, a nonprofit that provides aid to displaced and refugee Syrians.
She was nervous about getting up in front of her classmates to talk about herself and where she comes from but decided it was something that she had to do, that it was her mission to help her people.
She is also part of the Interact club, which works on community projects and fundraisers; participated in Student United Way; and was co-editor of the yearbook.
“I am a very emotional person,” Qarqour said. She added, “I just love memories, pictures. As someone who’s had a very huge arc of life that I would’ve never expected, I look back at memories, and I’m so glad I have these photos.”
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