Safa Salih looks into the future and sees possibilities: a career in fashion design perhaps, or construction engineering.

For that, she thanks her parents.

"This is my parents' dream," said the 22-year-old Southeast Community College student, "to get a better education for us."

Driven by that dream, Safa sees the hard work of college -- which earned her a Learn to Dream achiever award from SCC -- as an opportunity, not a burden. Because she's been in a place where the future is less clear, the possibilities murkier.

The prospect of earning her first high school diploma -- in her native Iraq -- was snatched from her just before her senior year, when criminals kidnapped her father. In the chaos of war-torn Baghdad in 2005, it was an all-too-common occurrence. 

Her family sold their house for ransom, decided it was too dangerous to stay in Iraq and fled to Syria in 2006. They left behind Safa's friends and grandparents -- along with her high school transcripts, which she needed to finish school.

Her father went across the border to get them and disappeared, once again a victim of kidnappers. Her older brother also was kidnapped, she said, but they got him back in a matter of hours, paying ransom to those who took him. They were not so lucky with her father.

* * *

Without transcripts, Safa attended school but was not given a diploma, nor was she allowed to attend college. As a refugee, she took classes to learn to sew, cut hair, cook and speak English. She loved sewing most, creating dresses, pants and shirts.

Then, in 2009, Safa, her mother and younger brother got the documentation needed to come to America. Her older brother went to the Ukraine to attend college. Her father still was missing.

Safa had never been on a plane before and watched with amazement the fields of the Midwest coming into focus below the clouds.

"We saw all the green, it's so beautiful," she said.

They settled in Lincoln because friends from Syria already were here. At 19, Safa found herself at Lincoln High School.

"I could not believe it, that I'm in an American school," she said later. "They treat us like we are human, not like animals or anything else."

Lincoln Public Schools officials tested her, placing her in 11th grade and assigning her to the district's English Language Learner program. Essentially, she said, she took four years of coursework in two, and ended up dropping out of ELL classes in order to take enough other courses to graduate by age 21.

Being older than her schoolmates was difficult, she said, but she found help and support from the teachers.

"The teachers were my friends."

* * *

About a year after arriving in Lincoln, the Salihs got a call from family in Iraq. Her father's kidnappers had contacted them and offered a ransom. The family had thought he was dead.

"Oh my gosh, you couldn't believe it," Safa said.

Her grandparents in Iraq sold their home to get him back. He made it out alive, though he'd been tortured during his four years of captivity.

When Safa graduated from high school in May, she talked to her father -- still in Syria -- via Skype, donning her cap and gown so he could see his graduate on a computer screen.

"He cried," she said. "He could not believe we are living the better life he wanted us to be in."

He joined them four months later in Lincoln. And Safa set her sights on college.

* * *

Her high school guidance counselor had told her about the Learn to Dream scholarship, which pays tuition and fees for as many as 45 credit hours at Southeast Community College. Students in a free- and reduced-price lunch program are eligible.

Safa was awarded the scholarship, which was created through a partnership between SCC, Lincoln's public and private high schools, Nelnet and Union Bank and Trust.

She got the achiever award after the 2011 fall quarter, SCC gave Safa its Learn to Dream Achiever Award.  It is given to students who have spent at least two quarters in the school's Learn to Dream scholarship program, and who have shown notable personal improvement and achievement.

She's now in her third quarter at SCC and hopes to earn enough credits to enroll at the University of Nebraska in 2013.

The scholarship, she said, has been invaluable.

Her mother, educated as a psychologist in Iraq, could not transfer her credentials to America. Instead, she works two jobs: at Molex and cleaning a hotel.

She sent money to Safa's older brother for college, so little remains for Safa and her younger brother. Her father is disabled and cannot work.

"We need to find money to go to school," she said. "To make our parents' dream come true."

And now, Safa's dream, too. Her love of sewing led her to consider a degree in textiles, clothing and design.

Recently, though, she's considered construction engineering.

Her father was trained as an engineer, though he ran a family jewelry business in Iraq. Her older brother studies engineering.

When Safa was a girl, she scrawled house designs in the back of her notebooks. Maybe later, once she's worked as an engineer, she'll design clothes, too, she said.

Until then, she'll continue working at SCC's day care center and taking ballet -- a luxury she wasn't allowed in Iraq.

And she'll study hard, turning possibilities into realities.

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or