From War-torn Iraq to a College Degree at MCC for Thaher
After moving to the U.S. from Iraq, by way of Syria, almost 10 years ago, Middlesex Community College student Rafal Thaher has learned English, finished high school, opened a successful business -- and is about to earn a college degree.
But it hasn’t been easy. On her first day at Lowell High School, Thaher recalled that she cried “just like children do when they go to school for the first time.” As a recent refugee to the U.S., the 15-year-old knew no English and was afraid of her new surroundings.
Today, at 24, Thaher runs RfullaHenna, her own henna-tattoo business, and works as a product specialist at the Apple store in Nashua, N.H. In May, the Lowell resident will join MCC’s Class of 2019, graduating with an Associate degree in Business Administration.
Like thousands of refugees resettled in Lowell, Thaher’s journey has been marked by conflict and tragedy. She was 9, getting ready for school one morning, when her father told her to pack all of her things. The previous night, a messenger had left an envelope at their door. It contained a bullet and warned that if they did not leave within 24 hours, the family would be killed. Only two years earlier, her mother had lost her family in a 2003 bombing in Al Anbar.
The family fled to Damascus, Syria. When they were granted refugee status and the opportunity to come to the United States, Thaher was nervous.
“Back home, I thought the United States would be the most dangerous place to live from what we saw in the war,” she said. “I was surprised by the very kind and lovely people who supported us from day one in the U.S.”
At Lowell High, she learned English, made friends from around the world, and began to like school again. After taking an Entrepreneurship class at LHS, Thaher launched her henna-tattoo business.
In 2014, Thaher took first place in Massachusetts in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship’s Regional Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge for her business plan. She was also named the Ernst & Young New England Youth Entrepreneur of the Year. Today, her henna art can be found on the hands and arms of brides and their bridesmaids throughout the area.
In the fall of 2014, Thaher enrolled at Middlesex. “I wanted to improve my English skills, learn the system here, and be successful in the future,” she said.
But what she found at MCC was much more than just the means to acclimate to a new language and culture.
“My English, my leadership skills and my public-speaking skills have improved,” she said. “Before I came to MCC, I wasn’t sure I was a leader. Now, one of my favorite things is being an orientation leader on opening day, helping other students and showing them around the college.”
Thaher attributes her success to the culture of inclusivity and support at Middlesex. “I love the diversity. I can meet students from all over the world -- and the advisers are very supportive and caring.”
Thaher plans to continue her education, with a goal of earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University.