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A Warrior Becomes a Husky

Omar Khalil stands in front of the “H” at the entrance to Hall High School. He graduated on June 13, and now attends UConn’s Hartford branch. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford resident Omar Khalil is a Syrian refugee, and after graduating from Hall High School in June he is now attending UConn.

Omar Khalil at the entrance to Hall High School. He graduated on June 13 – the first of the children of the 20 Syrian refugee families that have settled in West Hartford to graduate from high school. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

There have been so many firsts in Omar Khalil’s life that it would be impossible to list them all.

Recently those firsts have been very positive: He’s the first of his wave of local refugees to graduate from high school, and the first to attend college.

Omar Khalil at his Hall High School graduation on June 13. Courtesy photo

Omar is a member of one of 20 Syrian refugee families who settled in West Hartford or Hartford a few years ago when a large number were being welcomed to the country and there was a major effort locally to resettle them.

In response to the violence from what he calls the “revolution,” Omar fled Syria with his family and settled in Jordan where they remained for several years.

“In Jordan I always got the feeling I was inferior,” he said. It was also tough for his family members to find employment in Jordan because a license to work was needed and it was very expensive.

Omar didn’t really bother learning English in Jordan, however, never thinking he would have the chance to come to America.

He arrived in the U.S. on July 16, 2016, with his parents and his youngest sister, Afrah. There are nine children in his family, but only the two youngest were able to come to this country.

The family was initially provided with housing in Hartford, but Omar said when he was walking down Farmington Avenue one day, and crossed over into West Hartford, he immediately felt welcome and knew it was where he wanted to live.

He had been struggling in school and although he knew more words than any other member of his family, said he still couldn’t really speak English at all. “I was embarrassed,” he said. He had heard that West Hartford’s schools had a great reputation for teaching English to non-native speakers.

He said he told Nancy Latif, director of Refugee Advocate Services, that he wanted to move to West Hartford, and she and Sarah Kieffer, also of Refugee Advocate Services, and members of a group of volunteers helping the family eventually found housing for them on Farmington Avenue.

“I was impressed with Omar from the very moment I met him just over two years ago,” said volunteer Sharon Brewer.

“I went to his family’s apartment to meet the family and he was there to assist with translation. He was very open and loving from the get-go. I was tasked, along with other members of the group working with the family, to find a new place for the Khalils to live, with the goal being to get Omar and his sister Afrah into the best school possible.”

Brewer, who is a lifelong West Hartford resident, said that for a few weeks straight she spent hours with the family, and with Omar in particular as he assisted his parents in navigating English translations and scheduling appointments and other arrangements.

“West Hartford is a very welcoming community,” Omar said. “There are a lot of refugees, and people are used to dealing with people from other places. If they know I am a refugee they try to help me. It’s a very well-educated place as well.”

Omar enrolled at Hall High School, and fully embraced the opportunities he found there.

“I just went crazy to get to that level of English,” he said. After a year, the difference was remarkable.

Omar graduated from Hall High School on June 13, 2019, the first of the Syrian refugees to earn his diploma from West Hartford Public Schools. His sister is now a senior at Hall.

Supporters brought a cake to celebrate Omar Khalil’s graduation from Hall High School. Courtesy photo

Back in April, Omar had declared he was definitely going to college, and was waiting to hear from Central Connecticut State University as well as his dream school, the University of Connecticut.

Later in the spring he was admitted to UConn’s Hartford branch, with a full scholarship. “I knew I would love to study there, and I am so proud of myself to go to UConn,” Omar said.

He is the first person in his family to attend college.

Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, former chair of West Hartford’s Board of Education and now the director of the UConn Hartford branch, really encouraged him, Omar said.

He said he had previously been to the campus a few times, including to give a presentation on the current situation in Syria.

Omar hasn’t completely decided on his major, but said he is leaning toward engineering or business management.

Anna Shusterman, one of a group of approximately 15 volunteers who has been working with Omar and his family, guiding them and assisting them with networking, said that Omar has told her he really wants to become an architect, to be able to go back one day and rebuild Syria.

“This is such a celebration of West Hartford, such a success story,” Shusterman said. It’s a great testament to the dedication of West Hartford Public Schools, for being welcoming, for providing Arabic translation, and the strong program for English language learners that already existed.

When Omar started at Hall, “he was like a fish that found a pond,” Shusterman said.

Omar said his favorite classes at Hall were math and English. He said that the math curriculum in the school he attended in Jordan was very advanced, and he had already done geometry in seventh grade.

When asked if his parents are proud of him, Omar said, “They are, and I am going to make them even more proud of me.”

Omar will continue to live at home in West Hartford while attending UConn, and he plans to keep his current job at Zohara in West Hartford Center, although he hopes to move from being a busboy to a server. “Their food is really, really good, and I am memorizing the menu now,” he said.

His job is important to his family’s survival, Omar said.

“I’m supporting my family. I have to,” he said.

His father seriously injured his ankle when he fell on the ice in February, and spent months in a rehab facility. His ankle is now fully healed, but the fall also exacerbated an old back injury, and he may need disc surgery. He’s not able to work.

Omar’s mother, an excellent cook, was hoping to start her own catering business. She doesn’t read or write in any language, however, and even with assistance the barriers to forming her own business are too great. She often cooks for others in the refugee community, for small fundraising dinners, and each year has hosted a dinner for his and his sister’s teachers. Omar said that anyone who is interested in hiring her can contact him at [email protected].

On Aug. 26, 2019, Omar began the next step in his education as a UConn Husky, attending the Hartford branch. “I’m one of the Huskies now,” he said, adding that the husky was his favorite dog, even before he was accepted at UConn.

He picked up his actual diploma from Hall over the summer, and looked around at the school. “This was the best school I have ever been in,” he said.

“In just three years, Omar has in many ways become an American teenager,” said Linda Blechman Busch, one of the volunteers who has been assisting the family. In addition to graduating from Hall and being accepted to UConn, she said, “He has a job at one of the restaurants in the center. He joined a local gym and works out daily. He’s made new friends, gotten his driver’s license and even owns a car. Omar arrived here in July 2016 speaking no English, knew no one but his family and had little knowledge of American culture. We are so proud of how far he’s progressed in such a short period of time.”

Omar and his family recently took a trip to Niagara Falls with Latif and some others. He said he loved it, but West Hartford is his favorite place.

In West Hartford, Omar said he has never felt like anyone was critical of him for being from Syria, or being a refugee. His mother and sister both wear hijabs, and people smile at them, he said.

He does miss his other siblings, who are now scattered in Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Jordan. They aren’t able to visit because of the travel ban, but they do FaceTime.

“I started my life three times,” Omar said. “In Syria, in Jordan, and in the U.S. We’re rebuilding again, and I’m a symbol of what’s going on.”

Omar came into West Hartford with all these big dreams. “It’s amazing that he now has the resources to achieve them,” Shusterman said.

“As I got to know Omar, he would try to explain his deep faith to me, speak about Syria, his family that he misses so much and what he hoped to do with his future,” Brewer said.

“Two conversations stick with me to this day and truly reflect who Omar is. He told me he wanted to be an architect so that he can help to rebuild Syria, his home country that he misses very much. He also told me that he would like to find a way to show people his faith and to help heal the world.

“Watching Omar blossom into what on the surface looks like a typical teenager, working, playing soccer, going to school had been such a joy, especially since he is anything but typical. Seeing my community embrace Omar and his family makes me very proud to be a West Hartford resident. Omar is off to UConn this fall and I have every reason to believe that he will go on to help heal the world, just as he once told me he would,” Brewer said.

Omar’s Art

“BRAVERY” courtesy of Anna Shusterman

Art was one of Omar Khalil’s favorite classes at Hall High School, and one of his assignments in a drawing class was to convey an emotion.

“When he showed me his art portfolio and we came to this one, I just couldn’t stop looking at it, especially once he explained the meaning behind it,” said Anna Shusterman, one of a group of dedicated volunteers who has been assisting Omar and his family – refugees from Syria who have been in the U.S. since July 2016 – navigate their new community.

“I made this drawing in class, without any planning, but the experience I had faced [in Syria] was that there were a lot of people afraid to say what they feel,” he said. “I didn’t know someone would pay attention until I showed it to Anna.”

Shusterman, with the assistance of a photographer friend and a graphic designer, decided to make prints out of the image, so that the artwork, and the emotion behind it, could be shared more extensively.

The caption at the bottom, written by Omar, reads: “Bravery: This is the feeling inside when you just have to say something. In this picture, the majority stay silent but the minority have the courage to speak out.”

The prints, which measure 13 inches by 19 inches, are for sale for $20, plus an extra $5 if shipping is needed. All proceeds support Omar and his family.

Orders can be made online at https://forms.gle/ybFC2Qzp1uCEu8cA9

Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of West Hartford LIFE.

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