Story by Hawa Bealue

It was my junior year of high school in September 2004, and I was sitting in a classroom in Ago-Iwoye, Nigeria. My classmates and I were telling jokes, laughing, throwing papers and waiting for the arrival of our teacher. The dingy classroom often smelled like goat urine, because this place we called "school" didn't have windows or doors, which allowed wandering goats from the local village to enter the building at night seeking shelter and a safe place to sleep.

When we arrived that morning, the classrooms were in disarray from the goats, and the seats of the chairs were damp, leaving us stranded with no place dry or clean enough to sit. So we stood throughout the class period. I usually sat at an uncomfortable wooden desk that was parked among a row of other old desks on the dirt floor. The fact that I couldn't understand the daily lessons only added to my discomfort; I am Liberian and couldn't speak Yoruba, a native language of Nigeria that was spoken during class. Those of us who didn't comply with the teachers' requests — even if we couldn't comprehend them — were frequently beaten or treated like animals. I did my best not to make any mistakes.

Even though my family had fled from civil war in my home country, Liberia, to seek a better life in Nigeria, I wasn't free at all. This "education" I was receiving, coupled with my family's lack of money, was never going to amount to my dream of becoming a doctor.

In 2004, my family applied for refugee immigration status through the United Nations Refugee Agency. We wanted to relocate to the United States — a place where real opportunities for a free and equal education abound.

My uncle, his wife, my two cousins and I went through a series of intensive interviews by representatives of the United Nations before getting approval by the government of the United States to be relocated to Tucson. When we left Nigeria, we officially became five out of 2,198 people who arrived in Arizona as refugees that year through the Refugee Resettlement Program.

When we got clearance to come to the United States, I had to leave my mother behind by herself. My dad had died in the Liberian civil war. I could have chosen to stay with her in Africa, but we both knew I couldn't. There was no future for me there. She wanted the best for me, so she had to let me go for love. I am the only child she had.

* * *

Shortly after settling in Tucson in December 2005, I was admitted into the American school system as a 10th-grader at Catalina Magnet High School. My first day at Catalina was very different from the daily chaos I had come to know as normal schooling in Nigeria. A fellow student was assigned to escort me around this new school, where I saw American students moving so orderly from class to class. I didn't know what to make of any of it — the terrain was so unfamiliar. I became worried that I might forget or be late for classes because the school, unlike our big warehouse-like school in Nigeria, had so many hallways and rooms.

For several days, I would walk down the halls with my schedule, glancing up only to look at the room numbers. When I did look up, I was surprised to see boys and girls hugging and kissing each other in the hallways. In Nigeria, we could not show any physical affection with the opposite sex in public. Even if we wanted to, it was viewed as inappropriate, which was enough to dissuade us from doing so. But after a few days, I noticed that no one at Catalina was getting five lashings with a wicker stick for having the wrong answer or for being noisy. Instead, I observed quite a different approach to discipline: If students were being disruptive, teachers just asked them to stop.

After finishing my first week of high school in America, I said to myself: "Why would anyone drop out of a high school like this? Why would anyone waste the opportunity to go to a free school in a beautiful surrounding with helpful teachers? This is like a dream come true!"

I was so excited about school that I would wake up at 5 a.m. to get ready to start the day. When I was sick, I would pretend as if I weren't, because I didn't want to miss even one day of school. I wanted to succeed so badly that I became worried I would fail, especially when it came to communicating with my new friends and teachers. In Liberia, I spoke English, but I soon learned it was not the same U.S. English that people at Catalina were used to. When I spoke with my friends, I desperately wanted to fit in.

The biggest source of support for me since I came here, though, has been the English as a Second Language, or ESL, class at school. At Catalina, there are 194 refugees from countries all over the world: Somalia, Pakistan and Iraq, for example. My teacher, Julie Kasper, is in charge of helping all of us assimilate. But in ESL class, we don't just learn English. We also learn about Tucson and the neighborhoods we live in by doing projects and presentations about where we live. Even though I have lived in my neighborhood for over a year, I never knew anything about it until recently — not even the official name. Because of Ms. Kasper's care and support, I really appreciate the importance of community and feel more motivated than ever to accomplish my goal of giving back to my country by becoming a doctor in Liberia.

My experience of having lived in a developing country where true education doesn't really exist has led me to believe that a proper education is how to succeed. Having access to a good education and competent, caring teachers like Ms. Kasper makes all the difference in the world.

It deeply upsets me that many American students don't realize how fortunate they are to have such abundant choices in where and how they will be educated.

It often seems that young people go to school just to have fun or that they view their education simply as a vehicle to make money. But for me, education is all about the ability to make choices — the choice to go to college, to study medicine and become a doctor, to succeed and to be grateful for the people I have connected with.

Living in Tucson without either of my parents is hard, but it's why I work so hard in school.

When I was little, my mom could not afford most of my needs, but she always encouraged me to do my best in school. Having an education honors her, and it gives me the choice to change what childhood looks like for other kids in my country.

Education is my chance to change the problems that exist in Liberia, where real education is lacking." />

Hawa Bealue, 16, Catalina Magnet High School

I never knew that every picture tells a story — I didn't even know how to use a camera. Working at VOICES taught me everything. I only wish that it wouldn't end. VOICES is the place for youth in our community to express themselves.