By Stephen Barker
April 18, 2022
Sana Al Taima is a sophomore at the University of Houston and a OneGoal class of 2020 alum. She previously spoke to OneGoal about her experience with our Beyond12 partnership and now shares how her OneGoal cohort helped her find community in a new country.
The tools of the trade for grade school math students in Basrah, Iraq, consist of two things: paper and pencil. When Sana Al Taima entered her freshman year of high school in the U.S. after her family made the difficult decision to leave their home in 2016, she encountered something very different. The bulky Texas Instrument calculator her Algebra 1 teacher plopped onto her desk was the most complex, multi-functional calculator she had ever seen. “I had never used a calculator like this before and I felt so dumb, but I was also shocked that Americans use these things for just regular, everyday math!”
Graphing calculators were the least of her woes as Sana adjusted to life in the U.S. “My biggest shock was the people,” she explains. “It’s very common to say hi to your neighbor and have close relationships with the people in your community, and I didn’t really get that here. So I always felt like I was sort of an outsider in the community and it was hard for me to socialize with people because I’m visibly a minority and I’m not white-passing like some of my Arab friends.”
Just as the violence and political instability Sana left behind in Iraq began to feel more distant, fresh fears emerged with the changing political climate in the U.S. When she heard the news about the new administration’s 2017 executive order banning travel from Arab countries, Sana worried about her safety. “I wouldn’t even tell people I’m from Iraq,” she remembers. “We were being villainized and I started feeling guilty for simply existing as an Arab.”
To cope, Sana did what she’s always done: focus on her academics. “Getting good grades has always been one of my ways of proving people wrong and showing them that their assumptions about me don’t matter.” Coming from a rigid education system in Iraq, Sana took pleasure in choosing her own class schedule and designing her own path forward. One of the classes she opted into was OneGoal.
Sana said her OneGoal classroom “was the first time I actually had a group of friends I could relate to.” Like a lot of students who transfer to new schools, she found it hard to break through longstanding friendships that had formed among her peers who had been in school together since kindergarten. However with OneGoal, “there was another Arab student in the class and other immigrants and I felt that I was not going to be judged. We shared similar experiences; we know what it is like to be on the other side. So that’s when I found my community.”
Not only did this newfound community build Sana’s confidence and help shape her vision for the future, she also had the chance to return that support to the other Fellows in her cohort. “We were like a family. We supported each other emotionally and we were there for each other through hardships.”
Through conversations with her OneGoal cohort, Sana also learned to embrace her Arab heritage and identity. “Though my country has been going through political turmoil for the past 2 decades, I will always be proud of my origins and my ancestors.” says Sana. “Writing, agriculture, math, and a time system are just few of the ancient Mesopotamian contributions to society. They do not call Iraq the cradle of civilization for nothing after all.”
After graduating high school, Sana enrolled in the University of Houston (UH) and is now majoring in Public Health with minors in Biology and Medicine and Society. She is also on a Pre-Dental track with hopes of becoming an orthodontist or going into pediatric dentistry. With guidance from a personal mentor through OneGoal postsecondary success partner Beyond12, Sana is taking advantage of every opportunity that comes her way. “I have an internship lined up for the summer, and I am working with UH college of pharmacy to mentor Arab-American high school students and encourage them to pursue postsecondary education,” explains Sana. “I didn’t expect to find these amazing opportunities so soon, but I’ve learned that you get out what you put in and as long as you’re doing the work and taking initiative, you’ll be at a good spot.”
Sana dreams of mentoring young women like herself and creating a scholarship fund for Arab immigrant students who may struggle to find community in this country. “I want to tell those young Arab girls that it gets better,” says Sana. “You’ll find a community eventually so don’t feel like you must change yourself to fit in. Stay authentic and be proud of who you are and your heritage.”
In Sana’s home city of Basrah, the date palm tree, often referred to as the ‘tree of life’, flourishes in groves, along the streets, and across farmlands. Known to withstand harsh environments and storms, Sana looks to these ancient trees as a metaphor for her life, “palm trees don’t break; they bend and rise once the storm passes.”