From refugee camp to high school grad

Along the way, she learned about herself, America

The following is a pre-graduation speech delivered at the City on a Hill charter school.

MY NAME IS MARYAN ADEN and I am a member of the founding class at City on a Hill Dudley Square. Next month, my classmates and I will take the stage as the first graduates from City on a Hill Dudley Square.

But it definitely hasn’t been easy. It has been a long and often challenging road to get here, to stand before you tonight.

Twelve years ago my family and I migrated to the United States for better opportunities. In 1991, my parents fled the civil war taking place in Somalia and moved to a refugee camp located in Dadaab, Kenya. Five of my 12 siblings and I were born in the camp. It is the largest refugee camp site in the world, hosting over 250,000 refugees. The majority of inhabitants are from Somalia, where my family is from.

At the camp my daily schedule consisted of waking up at dawn to help my father and uncle herd sheep to the field near our mud house.  Then, I spent the rest of the day helping my mother with chores and often playing outside with my siblings and our neighbors. My dad had a little shop in the camp, but my parents still struggled to provide for all of us.

In the camp, there was a board that was updated every few weeks by the staff and it would contain information about which families had been cleared to start their new lives in America. My uncle, our designated board checker, would often come back disappointed because our names were not there. Finally, one day he came back with the news that we were next in line to leave. Everyone was jumping for joy at the thought that we would finally get to see this new land where everyone gets to live a “normal” life.

I did not know what to expect from America but I was scared of going to a completely new place. When I first got here I was scared of seeing people that were different from me. If you can believe it, I had never seen a white person until I came to America.

Before I came to America in 2005, I was not aware of the multilayered stigma attached to me as an African refugee and Somali-Muslim girl. It took me a while to learn English so I barely spoke at all when we first arrived in America and I didn’t understand why people would stare at me.  It was only after being educated on the events of 9/11 in school that I realized some Americans held these views about me without knowing me personally.

At first, I hated the fact that I was not born in America and that people hated me because of society’s stereotypes about Muslims and black people. When I started school, seeing all the little girls with their hair out and uncovered, playing and painting their nails, I was sad because I knew I could never be like them. At first, after learning about 9/11, I had questions about my own faith. But I knew that what I had been taught and experienced of Islam and what they did, had no correlation. It didn’t make sense at all.

Maryan Aden

But I did begin to see the world differently because I realized that many people had a set view on a religious group just because of a few people that made a mistake. I realized I had to watch what I did, and how I acted in public. I felt as though my hands were tied behind my back and I had to be mindful of everything because if I messed up once, it would ripple into opinions of all Muslims. I felt I had to set an example, to show the other side.

Throughout my life I have been called several disrespectful things. I have been called a terrorist, an African booty scratcher, and some kids even told me that I was bald under my hijab and that’s the only reason why I wore it. In the past I have been passive; however, now I feel that the only way to combat this ignorance is to educate, which is why I feel the urge to speak up whenever false information is being spread about my religion.

Those experiences have shown me the benefits of being different. This country was founded on diversity. It is what has allowed me all the opportunity I have had. As a result, I get to be here, educating others on Islam, my Somali heritage, and also being able to interact with people of many different backgrounds. I have experienced how diversity helps people see the world in a different light and understand different perspectives.

Before high school, I did not see the point of school. I thought it was this place you had to go for a certain number of hours and then go home. I had never written more than a few sentences at a time. There were no essays in my middle school. When the students were disrespectful, the teachers didn’t do anything about it. When I asked for help, they said no, figure it out. I would go home as confused as when I came in. I wouldn’t do my homework because I wouldn’t understand it. They didn’t care if I did my homework, and so I didn’t care.

I never saw college as an option. I thought that I would not be capable of attending due to both academic and financial reasons. Then I walked into City on a Hill and saw it on the wall [the word COLLEGE in capital letters is written on the wall in the cafeteria], just staring at me. That’s when I knew that this school would prepare me for what is to come.

Now I see why my parents lecture me about getting good grades. Now I see why education is so important and why they wanted me to come to City on a Hill. Because they never had this opportunity. They never had teachers who would push them to do their best every day. They never had people teach them about how to get to college and to stay in college. They never had Ms. Pratt pick them on purpose to present over and over until they were comfortable with public speaking. Thank you Ms. Pratt.

I want to make sure I make the most of what is given to me and City on a Hill ensures that each and every day. Today, I am more confident in my work.  When I do something, I know that I have done it to the best of my ability. I know that I am smart now because, as the saying goes, smart is not something you are, smart is something you become.

I am positive that City on a Hill is preparing me for college and the world beyond it. To think that 12 years ago I was in a refugee camp, and now am here with you about to complete my senior year of high school and soon to be a college freshman at Bridgewater State University. That is surreal. If you would have asked me where I saw myself in 10 years 10 years ago, my reality today would not even be an option in my mind. I am forever grateful for my teachers at City on a Hill and all the values they taught me in the short time span of four 4 years. Although my journey here is coming to an end, I will carry everything I have been taught here for many years to come.

Meet the Author

Maryan Aden

Student, City on a Hill Dudley Square
Thanks to City on a Hill I have learned the importance of education. I have found it’s the best way to success, because if you’re educated, no one can get in your way. Today, I embrace my diversity. I am an African. I am a Somali-English speaking Muslim woman, raised both in Kenya and America. I am a soon-to-be City on a Hill high school graduate and a first-generation college degree candidate.

Maryan Aden is graduating from City on a Hill Dudley Square and plans to attend Bridgewater State University in the fall. This speech was delivered at a pregraduation ceremony.