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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    Lyme-Old Lyme senior has come a long way from war-torn Syria

    Lyme-Old Lyme senior Mohamad Hamou at home May, 23, 2024, in Lyme. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    Editor’s note: The Day publishes an annual series of stories spotlighting outstanding seniors graduating from the region’s 16 public and private high schools.

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    Lyme ― When Mohamad Hamou graduated on a lush, green field at Lyme-Old Lyme High School last week, it was a world away from war-torn Aleppo in Syria.

    That’s where he grew up without any formal academic instruction before coming to the United States with his family at the age of 12.

    “In my mind, America was like how it was shown in the movies; like how Texas is,” the 19-year-old Hamou recalled in an interview at his family’s home before last Friday’s commencement ceremony. “So I never thought I’d be living in houses like this where I was surrounded by the forests.”

    Trees lined his Cape Cod-style home on three sides, with farmland filling out the view from a picture window. The sleepy area between Lyme and Old Lyme was a haven when his family arrived with a cadre of volunteers from the Old Lyme Refugee Resettlement Committee in 2016. He then enrolled in Lyme Consolidated School.

    Hamou, the youngest of Hani and Yaldiz Hamou’s three children, started as a fifth grader even though his age would have typically placed him in seventh grade. The extra time was necessary so he could become proficient in English and learn the basic skills he’d never been taught.

    Schools in Syria had closed once the war began in 2011 and he and his siblings were not allowed to attend schools in Turkey, where the refugee family first landed.

    He credited his new teachers here for their patience and his fellow students for their friendship.

    “Everybody was welcoming,” he said. “They came and hugged me. They made sure I was all right. They shared their food with me. They wanted to play with me. They made sure I had friends to rely on.”

    Hamou at the time spoke Arabic, Kurdish and some Turkish. Describing himself first and foremost as a social kid, he quickly learned the English language to ensure he could make the most of his new relationships.

    Within two years, he was giving a TED Talk at an independently organized event sponsored by The Country School in Madison. The video on the viral speaking platform known for “ideas worth spreading” has garnered 2,500 views so far.

    In the 5-minute video, Hamou spoke of having to drink lake water in northern Syria and use jackets for pillows on a carpet in Turkey while trying to escape the war. He described the plane ride to John F. Kennedy International Airport and his arrival in Lyme by way of Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services in New Haven.

    He recalled his mother crying at finally having her own kitchen.

    “Then I went upstairs and I finally saw my own bed,” he said.

    In the video, the then-sixth grade student also called for peace and safety for those still in Syria before turning his attention to those in the room with him.

    “And I hope all of your guys’ dreams come true like mine did,” he said. “And I’m going to keep dreaming.”

    The Associated Press said the ongoing war, which has killed nearly 500,000 people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million, began as peaceful protests against the government of President Bashar Assad in March 2011. The protests were met by a brutal crackdown that quickly spiraled into a full-blown civil war.

    Family ties

    Hamou’s sister, Darin, and brother, Kamber, graduated from Lyme-Old Lyme High School in 2020. Darin Hamou works as a certified nursing assistant and Kamber Hamou is set to graduate from the University of Connecticut next year with a computer science degree.

    “My brother is my idol,” Hamou said. He’ll follow in his footsteps at UConn as well, where he hopes to study business.

    Kamber Hamou, a self-described nerd, recalled warning his high school teachers they were not ready for the youngest Hamou sibling.

    “They were expecting something similar to us; My sister is closer to me with her habits,” he said. “However, they saw something very different with my brother.”

    What they got was someone “more social, more open and very willing to help, always,” Kamber Hamou said.

    Hamou guessed that his brother and sister did not need the same level of social interaction he did because they weren’t as starved for it as he was.

    “In Syria, they did have a childhood,” he said. “They went to school, they had friends. I didn't. I always was on my own. So having these friends is a first thing for me.”

    Two members of the Old Lyme Refugee Resettlement Committee: Faye Richardson, who is saved in Hamou’s cell phone contact list as Nana Faye, and Dee Gonci, are considered honorary grandmothers by the Hamou children.

    Richardson and Gonci were the people who stayed involved with the Hamou family members even after they had reached the point where they could help themselves, according to Hamou. They went from taking the children to school, soccer games and medical appointments to serving as ongoing sources of advice and support.

    Richardson in a phone interview said Hamou once told her the day he started school in Lyme was the happiest of his life.

    “The stunning thing to me about Mohamad is that here is a kid, after having lived through what his family did, who is so joyful. He loves school. The kids he met at Lyme Consolidated in the fifth grade are still his very best friends. They stick together like glue,” she said.

    But she pointed to Hamou’s relationship with his mother, father, sister and brother as the most important in his life. He is committed to getting a well-paying job so he can begin to give back to his family what they gave him.

    “They’re all so proud of one another,” Richardson said. “Because when they arrived in the United States, Mohamad’s dad had a dream that his kids would get a good education.”

    e.regan@theday.com

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