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Iraqi refugee defies odds to pursue ASU education

woman sitting with book in library
August 26, 2014

All the odds were stacked against her when Najla Abdalla came to the United States with her family from Baghdad to escape the Iraq war in 2004.

“When we came here, I kind of felt lonely and I didn’t even want to be here. I didn’t know many people who spoke my language,” Abdalla says.

She recalls one high school teacher who discouraged her because she did not speak much English. "He told me I wouldn’t be able to even graduate high school,” says Abdalla.

Now a student at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work, part of the College of Public Programs, Abdalla is set to graduate in December with her bachelor's degree.

But it wasn't easy getting to that point. During her first year at an American high school, Abdalla says she dropped a critical class after her teacher used a Muslim slur against her.

“We were getting beat up by teachers in Iraq if we didn’t do our homework,” says Abdalla. “I didn’t know my rights here.”

Afterward, Abdalla began taking an additional class to meet graduation requirements. Between her regular school day and the additional class, she was attending high school from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

During that time, Abdalla’s family sought the nonprofit organization International Rescue Committee (IRC) for the resources they needed to find new jobs and a home. But the more they visited the IRC, the more Abdalla found herself wishing for support to continue pursuing an education.

In 2008, Abdalla enrolled part time at ASU. She had to work two jobs to support her family, but her fierce determination would not allow her to settle for the life her high school teacher had expected of her. “Follow your dream and never give up,” she says.

With a minor in global studies, Abdalla began her undergraduate career by providing the resources to refugees that her family didn’t have, returning to the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix once more to complete an internship.

High school friend Bimala Pudasaini recalls Abdalla’s determination when they began attending ASU. “Najla is a very determined student,” Pudasaini says. “When we used to live in the dorm together, she used to wake up at 5 a.m. to do her papers.”

School of Social Work professor Layne Stromwall encountered Abdalla’s dedication to her education when she was enrolled in her course last year. “Most [School of Social Work students] are serious about their education, awesome multi-taskers, motivated to contribute to improving their community and people's lives ... and have strong communication and interpersonal skills.” Stromwall says. “Najla definitely was serious about her education.”

After graduation, Abdalla plans to pursue her master’s in social work and, eventually, her doctorate.

“Some people just get the degree because they want to get money,” Abdalla says. “But if you’re willing to help someone with your heart ... that’s what I think is the most important.”