Student from Lebanon came reluctantly, now wants to stay

Nizar Akkawi - Nizar Akkawi

Nizar Fadi Akkawi, 18, is a senior at Falmouth High School. Nizar moved from his hometown of Bachamoun, a suburb outside Beirut, Lebanon, to Falmouth last May.

“In my country there’s a lot of fighting and bad stuff, and it’s not safe there,” Nizar said earlier this week, when he sat down in the high school’s guidance office to talk about his new life in America.

“At first, I didn’t want to come because I had my friends and my family there,” he said.

Nizar’s father, Fadi Akkawi, a jeweler, has been living in Falmouth for the past five years. He manages Hannoush Jewelers in Falmouth, which is owned by his brother, Mustapha Akkawi.

Nizar said his father would work for three months, then fly home to visit for a couple weeks, then back again.

Two years ago, Nizar’s younger brother, Sam, now a sophomore at Falmouth High, went to live with his father in their house on Hatchville Road. Nizar and their mother, Randa Akkawi, stayed in Beirut.

“And then my brother liked it,” Nizar said. “And then I was not sure if I should come or stay there.”

Nizar had visited his father during the summer, so he knew Falmouth somewhat.

“I told my father, ‘I’m going to try it’,” Nizar said. “And I like it now. And I want to stay here for good now.”

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Nizar’s mother remains in Lebanon. When asked why, Nizar said “papers and this stuff, waiting for immigration.”

Everytime Nizar hears of a bombing in Beirut, he calls his mother. “I just ask her ‘where are you?’ Go home now,’ “ he said.

“All the time you feel you’re in danger,” Nizar said, describing life in Beirut. “When I was here [in Falmouth], there was a bomb before the New Year, and my friend was injured in that bomb. He’s okay now, but his friend who was with him was dead.”

Despite living in America for less than a year, Nizar’s English is excellent. However, he said he had only minimal English instruction before moving to Falmouth.

“I used to say ‘hi’ and ‘bye,’ “ Nizar said. “I wasn’t very good, not like now. I was so bad in English. I’m still bad, but better than before.”

Still, when Nizar took the MCAS test within a month of his arrival, he passed both the math and biology sections with a score of proficient.

This fall, he passed the English portion of the test.

Nizar has been accepted to Curry College, outside Boston, and has an interview at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth on April 10. He wants to go on to medical school and become a heart doctor.

Nizar said that his guidance counselor at Falmouth High, Lindsay D. Ruthven, has been invaluable, helping him apply to college and translate his numerical Lebanese grades into American letter grades. “She was so nice to me. She was with me with everything,” he said. “If I have any problem, I go to her and talk to her.”

Ms. Ruthven described Nizar as a “strong student who works hard”.

She said Nizar is “definitely a frequent flyer in my office” and will pop in most mornings just to say ‘hi’.

“It’s difficult for someone to come in at the end of junior year anyway, and he’s from another country on top of that,” said Ms. Ruthven, who has been a guidance counselor at Falmouth High for 11 years.

But Nizar has “made nice connections with other students who have positive things going on,” she said.

Nizar said he has made friends with a group of boys who invited him to sit with them at lunch one day. “And they start asking me ‘where you from?’ They were nice to me,” he said.

One of those boys is Kurran Singh, the senior class valedictorian. Kurran wrote in an e-mail, “At our lunch table, Nizar often asks us what certain slang phrases or texting shortforms mean, and we explain them to him. I admire how Nizar is able to keep a positive outlook and stay motivated to learn more English even when he makes an awkward miscommunication due to the language barrier.” 

Kurran is part of the high school’s Model United Nations Club, led by Spanish teacher William Mock. The UN club decided to learn a bit of Arabic this school year, and began meeting Thursday nights at the Gus Canty Community Center last fall.

Kurran told Nizar about the class, and encouraged him to come teach. Nizar speaks a Lebanese dialect of Arabic. He said it feels good to teach the other students his language, “so they can know how nice it is, and how beautiful it is.”

Mr. Mock said Nizar brought in a children’s alphabet book from Lebanon, all in Arabic, “And that was the basis for our study of writing letters: we sat there and practiced like little 1st graders.”

On the sometimes uneasy relations between America and the Arab world, Nizar said, “What I want to say is ‘treat everybody equally.’ Like don’t punish one country but not another country. For example, if Palestine don’t do what the US say to do the US punish Palestine. But the US are telling Israel to stop doing what they are doing now. But she doesn’t want to stop. But they are not punishing her or do anything, they just” – he paused – “I don’t know if they don’t care, or what, but they are not treating them equal.”

Nizar continued, saying that Americans imagine that Arabs hate them. Arabs may be frustrated with America’s involvement in the Middle East, Nizar said, “But it is not because they hate America, or they hate American people, as they think here, that ‘Arabs hate us, Middle East hate us’, but that’s not true. All that Arabs want is peace and equal treatment.”

Nizar will visit Lebanon this summer, but plans to build his life in the United States, where he is now a citizen, he said.

“Here in the US it is safe, no fight, no bomb. There’s more opportunity. And it’s beautiful here,” he said, explaining his decision to stay in America.

Did he miss home?

“Yes, I miss home.”

What does he miss the most?

“I miss the food,” Nizar said, with a grin. Lebanese grilled meats, and tabouli, especially. “I miss the food. I miss my family, my friends.”

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