Ghariba Babiry is experiencing a classic American dream story.
Coming to the United States 15 years ago without understanding a word of English, with no prior schooling—and soon she will receive a college degree, with a potential teaching job in tow. Now, that’s quite an accomplishment.
“It’s all still a dream,” she said.
For the young Kurdish immigrant, it all started at about age 14, She, her father, mother and three younger siblings had to flee the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein. They left their Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq for a new life in the U.S.
They landed in Nashville, Tenn.—a totally different culture and way of doing things.
“This was all a new experience and yet my siblings and I were required to cope and succeed amid some serious challenges,” Babiry said.
But challenge, for Babiry, was an understatement. It was an awakening.
“For my first time ever in a classroom, I was thrust into the eighth grade at Cameron Middle School with no understanding of English and totally dumfounded,” she said. “I had a separate interpreter with me in class about three hours a week to guide me through the instructions while the teacher was teaching. Worse yet, at 14 years of age, I was the oldest in the class but understood the least. This was very difficult. I tried to give up several times.”
Thanks to Babiry’s very persistent parents, she hung in there through the daily struggle of trying to complete class assignments—almost always the last to finish.
My mother was constantly on me not to give up. ‘Never give up; don’t be illiterate like me; I can’t even write my own name,’ she would say. For my father, all he wanted me to think about was school. ‘I’ll provide you with everything I can. After all I came to America for you, so that I can give to you what I did not have the chance to do in Kurdistan,’ he would say.”
The persistence, struggle and what seemed to Babiry then as harassment, paid off through developmental courses—in middle school, high school, community college, and now Tennessee State University.
On May 11, she was among more than 1,000 graduates who received their degrees when Tennessee State University held its spring commencement at Hale Stadium.
She will be the third among her siblings to receive a college degree since arriving in the U.S. Two younger brothers, one in mechanical engineering and the other in nursing, have also graduated from TSU. Her youngest sister is pursuing a nursing degree at Middle Tennessee Sate University.
Babiry, who will receive her degree in early childhood education, said her graduation was surreal because she was not sure she would get through the Praxis exams.
“I am thankful to Allah the almighty for their support and for giving me the strength and some very important people who understood my situation and encouraged me along the way. A kind word and a little encouragement go a long way,” she said as she gave recognition to some of her TSU professors, especially Dr. Graham Matthews, her senior advisor.
“I had some good teachers, but Dr. Matthews, Ms. (Deborah) Bellamy (also at TSU), and Dr. Tammy Lipsey (‘reading clinical coordinator’ for the Metro School System) are heaven sent,” she said. “They were never too busy to make sure I was doing the right thing.”
In addition to her degree, Babiry has completed all certifications required for teaching, with the exception of the English Language Learners Certification or endorsement required to teach in the schools in her area. She should get that certification soon, she said. She is currently a student teacher at Haywood Elementary School in Nashville.