Nibras Khudaida will stand before a sea of navy gowns and square caps Sunday and address her graduating class, because four years earlier, she saw the flags of the Islamic State fluttering below her village and she did not flee.
The 19-year-old Yazidi woman will turn her tassel and throw her cap skyward, because when she was younger and the people in her small Iraqi village said education was for boys — and not for her — she didn’t listen.
This fall she will start classes at Creighton University, because three years ago she walked into North Star High School without knowing a word of English and she kept going.
She learned 10 new vocabulary words each day and joined the speech and debate club. She took advanced-placement classes and asked a Nebraska congressman if she could intern in his office, and tried out for graduation speaker.
“She puts her mind to things, and goes and does it,” said English Language Learner teacher Cara Morgenson. “She figures out what works for her, and she says if I can do this anyone can do it. There’s no arrogance. It’s so empowering to other students.”
Always, education drives her.
“Education is, to me, the only gateway to success,” said the North Star senior. “In order for me to have a brighter future I need to have education. I don’t want to be like other women in my society where house chores would be their only duty. ... I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something like any boy would do.”
So she did.
* * *
Khudaida was born in a small farming village in northern Iraq to parents who believed in education as a path to opportunity, though neither had reaped its benefits.
Her mother quit school after the second grade and her father had to drop out of high school to help on the farm.
But they both wanted their six children — including three daughters — to be educated, Khudaida said.
That made them an anomaly in the tight-knit Yazidi community where traditional roles — women taking care of the home, men working to support the family — were the norm.
“They didn’t feel like that,” Khudaida said of her parents. “Both of them loved education and they wanted me to have it. They wanted me to have the right like any other boy from the village.”
That seeped into Khudaida’s consciousness, took root in the oldest child, drove her to work hard, to pour over her textbooks in school.
She expects the same for her younger sisters.
"If I give my brother a pen, I should give my sister a pen. Not a pot to clean or cook."
At the end of her sophomore year, she was named “student of the year” — for the second year in a row — for getting top grades.
On that last day of school in the spring of 2014, she was celebrating with friends when a commotion drew them outside.
A line of cars reached farther than Khudaida could see. People had crowded into vehicles. Others walked alongside. Children cried. People shouted.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “We had no idea.”
It didn’t take long to figure it out.
The Yazidis practice an ancient religion for which they have been persecuted over the centuries, most recently by the Islamic State, and on Khudaida’s last day of school, IS fighters were coming.
IS was advancing into the city of Mosul and even before the Iraqi army retreated, thousands of residents began to flee to the safety of northern cities.
Khudaida and her friends ran.
“I don’t remember how I got to my house,” she said. “I see my mom is packing everything. By everything I mean not our clothing. She’s just packing our IDs and passports and a little bit of food. Because, who cares about clothing right now.”
Her family piled in a car and went to get her grandma and two aunts. In all, 12 people crammed into the small Honda and they headed north. She still can’t imagine how they managed it, except that fear eclipsed everything else.
“We were so scared, we just wanted to get out of there and be safe,” she said.
Eventually, they reached the northern city of Erbil. They thought, initially, that the danger would pass and they’d be able to return home, but IS took over their village. Even when Peshmerka, the Kurdistan Army, reclaimed it, they learned of the horrors in Sinjar, where IS had seized control, murdering men and abducting women and girls. And so they stayed.
They found a place to stay, but Khudaida needed a transcript signed by her principal to attend school. By that time, her principal had returned to their village, now in the shadow of the Islamic State. So she and her father went back to find him.
“I went to the top of the mountain and I was able to see their flags and ISIS members moving from one side to another,” she said. “It was the most terrifying moment in my life.”
But they did not run. They found the principal and got the signature Khudaida needed.
“I just wanted a good education,” she said. “Because I had dreams and goals. And I didn’t want ISIS stopping me. I didn’t want my status as a refugee stopping me. So I had to go there and get the principal to sign it."
She spent the next months at a girls' school in Erbil. But it was not easy.
She was taunted and harassed because of her religion. It seemed the only difference between the school and the terror of IS was that her classmates didn’t have weapons, though it felt like they did.
“(They) are using weapons with (their) words every single day. Even in the classroom. I didn’t have any friends in there,” she said.
She couldn’t understand the hate.
“I’m not an alien. I’m not guilty. I’m not a criminal or something. I’ve never done such a bad thing. All I’ve done is I was born a Yazidi and I’m not changing this. And (they) should accept that and respect that. Just like I respect (them),” she said. “That didn’t happen at all.”
Because her father had worked for the U.S. Army, groups that considered him a traitor leveled threats against the family, but his work also provided special immigration status in America.
On April 3, 2015, her father got a call from the immigration office telling the family to pack its bags.
“That’s the happiest we’ve ever been in my whole family,” she said. “Everybody was crying. We were so excited and happy to come to the United States.”
* * *
The patchwork of farm fields she’d seen from the airplane were already challenging her view of America, one she’d assumed was comprised only of the skyscrapers and big cities she saw in the movies.
Then they walked off the plane.
“All I saw was Yazidis waving,” she said. “And my cousins jumping out of there, coming and hugging me.”
In Lincoln, Khudaida and her family joined the largest settlement of Yazidi refugees in the United States. Within a few days, they had a place to live and Khudaida found herself taking an English Language Learner placement test.
The test gave her a writing prompt, which she couldn’t read, but she’d memorized a lesson from Iraq where she’d had to write something in English. She later found out the ELL test prompt was “who’s your hero?”
“I talked about global warming, because that’s what I’d memorized,” she said. “I had no idea what global warming was at the time.”
But it got her into a second-level class, and she started at North Star with two weeks left in the school year.
She was excited and scared and lost and confused — and thrilled to see a group of Yazidi students who helped her navigate the hallways and her classes.
It seemed impossible, like all her hard work in Iraq had been for nothing, that the top student was back at the starting line.
But she took summer school and her dad’s advice to learn 10 words each day, telling him her new words each day when he picked her up. And she began to realize her hard work hadn’t been a waste.
“Because when I was in Iraq, I learned how to get a book and study from it. Study hard. In Iraq I knew if I worked hard I would get a good grade. And that’s the strategy I used here.”
She knew if her English-speaking classmates studied an hour, she’d need to study two. She pushed forward. No excuses.
By the end of her junior year, she'd graduated from her ELL classes. She took 10 advanced-placement classes this year. She earned all As.
She attended a summer debate camp in Omaha, then joined North Star’s speech and debate team, because she figured it would help improve her English skills.
She won some local competitions in persuasive speaking. In debate, she and her partner made it to the state quarterfinals, the only team to beat Millard North, which ultimately claimed the state title.
When she had to shadow someone for her career education class as a junior, she was curious about politics and thought of Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry.
She’d heard him speak to a group of Yazidi refugees at the Center for People in Need right after she'd arrived. She and the other Yazidi refugees had been through so much, she said.
"So we were basically all heartbroken,” she said, and Fortenberry helped change that.
“It just made us feel so welcome. It just made us have hope again. It gave me, personally, hope.”
So she wrote Fortenberry a letter asking if she could job shadow him. She told him he was her hero, that a meeting with him could change her life.
“How could you not say ‘yes’?" said Fortenberry, who said "yes" again when she asked if she could be an intern in his office.
The congressman, who's worked for years to help Yazidis move to the U.S., called Khudaida a “model immigrant story” — a young woman with deep pride in her own culture and tradition and a desire to be an American.
She knew about the American airstrikes that stopped IS, but Fortenberry explained how the topic she'd been debating at the state quarterfinals was a policy used to get the planes there.
Her topic: On balance the current authorization for the use of military force gives too much power to the president.
She remembers hearing planes overhead as her family fled that day. She thinks now that they were American planes.
"If there weren't air strikes IS would have advanced more and more. They would have reached us in the mountains while we were sleeping," she said. "I didn’t know anything about it and he told me and I was, like, I debated the same topic that saved my life.”
Her former ELL teacher — Khudaida's biggest supporter at school — thinks her former student is going to change the world.
“She’s going to go out and do amazing things," Morgenson said.
First, though, she’ll tell her story to a sea of graduates, a story of drive and hard work and the beauty of education.
“It’s my eye,” she said. “I can’t see the light if I don’t have education.”