Hiam Abdulahad never stopped helping others. Not when she was caring for orphans in Baghdad before fleeing the carnage caused by the war in Iraq. Not when she was volunteering to help refugees in Syria even though she herself was a refugee. And not when she pitched in with the International Rescue Committee while still settling into her new home in Spring Valley.
Today, thanks to the unwavering support she received when beginning her higher education journey at Cuyamaca College, Abdulahad has graduated summa cum laude from San Diego State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work and is now helping others acclimate to a new life as a case manager for Jewish Family Services.
“Anyone can overcome the obstacles they may face and earn a degree in this country,” Abdulahad said. “You can’t give up. But for me, I had so much help from Cuyamaca College, I had so much support, I had so many people who believed in me. Cuyamaca was the bridge that brought me to a better future and has allowed me to continue doing what I can to help.”
Abdulahad is among the nearly 4,000 refugees and immigrant students, many from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, who attend Cuyamaca and Grossmont colleges. Her story has drawn a growing legion of admirers.
“Academically, she was just an absolutely outstanding student who was at the top of the class,” said Cuyamaca College instructor Anita Stirling, who first met Abdulahad in her introductory social work courses. “But even more than that, she was very diligent and very determined and very willing to help other students. You won’t find a more responsible person. All of her peers looked up to her.”
Abdulahad’s journey began in Baghdad, where she was working as a property surveyor, volunteering with an orphanage, and raising three children with her husband, who owned a coffee shop. Her fortunes changed in 2003 when a U.S.-led coalition aiming to topple the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the country and chaos ensued.
“There were bombings all the time, kidnappings, it was extremely bad,” Hiam said. “First we fled north to my home village, then we went to my husband’s village, then we returned to Baghdad when it seemed safe to return. But the situation was horrible. The children couldn’t go to school. I was terrified. We had to escape.”
The family packed what it could into a car and drove in the cover of darkness toward Syria seeking asylum. They told no one of their plans.
“Thank God, we were able to get out safely,” she said.
|Abdulahad and her son Samer Odish|
The family lived in Damascus for four years, during which time Abdulahad volunteered with refugee organizations while her children attended school. She later found work with the United Nations, which kept her employed until 2008, when the United States cleared the family to resettle with relatives in Detroit. Four months later, relatives convinced them to move to San Diego County. Within months, Abdulahad, now a Spring Valley resident, began taking adult school ESL classes.
As her confidence in her English grew, Abdulahad enrolled at Cuyamaca College within a year.
“It was challenging because of the language barriers, but with the help of my professors and mentors like Alicia Munoz, Jerry Tesar and Anita Stirling, I was able to move ahead,” she said. “Words are not enough to describe these three professors. They were amazing.”
Munoz said Abdulahad, who received scholarships from the Foundation for Grossmont & Cuyamaca Colleges, stood out from the beginning.
“In my advanced ESL composition course, Hiam took academic excellence to new heights, setting the bar high for herself and her fellow classmates,” Munoz said. “It was gratifying to see how her fellow classmates responded to her work ethic by emulating her attitude towards her course work, demonstrating that imitation is the best form of flattery. While she came to Cuyamaca as a refugee, she devoted effort, time, and passion to her studies, transferring to San Diego State University as one of our stellar students. She truly personifies how a community college education is the gateway to a successful future.”
In 2013, Abdulahad earned her associate degree in social work, graduating with honors. After taking a year off to work and begin a three-year tour volunteering with the International Rescue Committee, she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2016 from San Diego State University.
Hiam has been with Jewish Family Services since last year, helping refugees – primarily Iraqis and Syrians – learn American customs and traditions, enroll in school, find employment and seek volunteer opportunities.
“People should always do what they can to help the vulnerable,” she said. “If you have the ability, I think you should reach out to people who are in need.”