Samar Eltalib Bashir remembers one of her first bus rides in the United States. She had recently arrived in Northern Virginia from her native Sudan and needed to go from her apartment to the grocery store.
But the 18-year-old spoke no English.
When she climbed onto the bus, she tried to ask the driver if she was on the correct route. But Samar froze, struggling to recall the words she had practiced the night before. When she noticed two passengers mocking her inability to communicate, she quickly took a seat. It was the wrong route, and she got lost.
This was not the American arrival that Samar anticipated. At 17, she was submitted by a relative for the Green Card Lottery. Formally known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa, the program was established to encourage immigration from underrepresented countries. Sudanese citizens have few pathways to immigrate to America. So, when Samar was selected, her father encouraged her.
“He believed I could do big things,” Samar recently told me.
The bus experience was equally painful and motivating. Samar’s father had given her an Arabic-English dictionary. Each morning, before she went to the grocery store or doctor’s office, she brainstormed questions and phrases she might need, recording them in a notebook.
In the evenings, she continued to study by Googling song lyrics by her favorite artist, Michael Jackson, and watching English-language movies and sitcoms. She turned on closed-captioning and jotted down words to look up later. If certain words appeared over and over, that told her they were important. She practiced pronouncing them.
“I started to really love learning English,” Samar said. “I also knew learning it would mean I could communicate, not just in America, but anywhere in the world.”
Eventually, she enrolled in ESL classes at Northern Virginia Community College and began to learn English language fundamentals.
“Being around people going through the same experience as you, you realize you are not the only one struggling,” Samar said. “You don’t feel as intimidated because you are all on the same level and know no one will make fun of you.”
But it was the job she landed at Sally Beauty Supply where her language education really took off. Many of Samar’s colleagues also spoke English as a second language. The manager encouraged them to practice with customers.
Samar was stumped one day when a customer asked her for a “rain check.” Other times, people laughed when her accent made “pink” sound like “bink.” These interactions were frustrating, but her manager kept encouraging her.
“She promised to help me learn,” Samar recalled. “She told me, ‘If anyone makes fun of you, don’t take it.’”
Within a year, Samar was promoted to assistant manager. Later, she got a job at Macy’s. “By then my English had really improved, and I knew working at a busier store would only make me a better, faster speaker,” she said.
Samar had her sights set on college. In 2004, she passed NVCC’s English fluency test. Her family – and especially her father – was thrilled for her to begin her educational journey.
After earning her associate’s degree in biology at NVCC, Samar transferred to George Mason University. She graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree with honors in biology, planning to attend medical school. But a few months after her graduation, Samar’s father passed away from a heart attack.
Needing to support her family, which included her mother, two sisters and a brother, who had joined Samar in Virginia in 2008, she had to enter the workforce. She earned her master’s degree in global public health and became an academic adviser at the Saudi Embassy, advising international students applying to medical school.
“Sometimes life pushes you in a different direction, and I realized I could still make a difference,” she said.
But Samar never forgot about her dream of working in medicine. And after she lost a younger brother and sister to heart disease in the years after their father’s death, she decided it was time to do something about it. She was recently accepted to the Diagnostic Medical Sonography Program at NVCC’s Springfield campus and hopes to pursue a career in cardiology.
“I hope people learn from my story that even if you come to the U.S. and don’t speak the language, you can still build a good life here,” Samar said.
In a way, her story has come full circle. Her two children are fluent English speakers, just like their mother. Samar is trying to open new doors for them – and give them the skills to communicate with people across the globe. In that spirit, she is teaching them her native Arabic.
Sophia Aimen Sexton is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus and co-founder of the nonprofit Female Refugee Education Empowerment.