SPRINGFIELD — Abdirizak Farah looks up at the leaves on the trees in Kenefick Park and laughs as he remembers the first time he saw leaves change color and fall off.
“I didn’t understand why that was happening. The trees looked dead, it was so strange and then there was snow. It was amazing,” said Farah, who was born in Somalia and spent his youth in a refugee camp in Kenya until moved to Springfield with his aunt and uncle when he was 13.
This month Farah, who arrived in America with barely any education and congenital heart disease, was named valedictorian of his class at Duggan Academy in Springfield.
“I really could not believe it, but my teacher told me to push myself and I thought maybe I could be third or fourth in my class — but not this,” said Farah, referring to his English as a Second Language Teacher Alfonso Acevedo.
“I am so proud of him. He is an excellent student and a wonderful person,” said Acevedo, who has worked with Farah on his English skills since ninth grade.
“When he first came to my class it was my first year teaching high school students, so I think it was a new experience for both of us. He was very quiet in class, but then he would come to me and ask me questions about certain words or how to write something. He loved to learn and to understand not only language, but culture as well,” he said.
Farah was born to a large Somali family. His parents raise camels and other livestock. As a child he struggled to breath and was always very weak. When he was two years old his father’s sister, Maryan Roble, and her husband, Ali Maalim, became the boy’s guardians so he could travel to Mogadishu to have a specialist look at his heart.
“They were told the technology was not advanced enough to cure my heart, so we emigrated to Kenya,” he said.
In Kenya he and his aunt and uncle — he considers them a second set of parents — and their children lived in a refugee camp for several years while they searched for doctors who could treat him.
“We lived in a tent. There was not really much water and it was always very hot all the time,” he said.
Farah’s family valued education and wanted him and his cousins to go to school. But the nearest school was over an hour’s walk away. With his heart condition, he was not able to attend very often.
“I could not walk very far so I would only go to school sometimes and I would try to remember everything when I went back to the camp,” he said.
Without modern technology, books or notebooks, Farah learned basic English and literacy skills.
When he was 13 his case was referred to a surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital. He and his family made the long trip to the United States, where they found a home in Springfield and traveled to Boston for his surgery.
“The doctors they said they were surprised I lived to be 13 with my condition, but I had the surgery and now I am fine,” he said. “I can play soccer and I can run.”
Once settled in Springfield, Farah was enrolled in the seventh grade at Duggan Academy. His first English language learners teacher was Lauren Kessler, who was assisted by a paraprofessional Hussein Guhad, also from Somalia.
“He was in a class with quite a few Somali kids as well as kids from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but everybody had been in America for a fairly short period of time,” Kessler said.
Kessler remembers Farah as a kind, friendly child who smiled and was always meticulously dressed.
“His uniform was always tucked in and perfect and he was very polite and always stood big and tall with a smile on his face,” she said. “He was kind of like the image of what a perfect student would look like.”
Many of the kids in the class were struggling with culture shock as well as homesickness and language barriers. Kessler and Guhad tried to establish a friendly, warm atmosphere for the students so they would see each other as family.
“We had varying levels of literacy in the class. There was one girl who had never left her village before coming to America. She had never gone to school and had never been around anyone other than her family,” she said. “Abdirizak had a bit more literacy than other students and he was a good writer, so I would have him help her and he never once complained. He always would help anyone I asked him to.”
As the years progressed and Farah entered ninth grade his language skills continued to improve and he started developing an interest in art and math and science. He also excelled at English literature.
“He struggled with English as a language, but boy did this kid try,” said Melinda Shea, Farah’s ninth- and 12th-grade English teacher. “He worked 10 times harder than everyone else because he was learning the English langue while learning English literature and American culture.”
Shea said she was impressed with his development throughout his high school years.
“He went from very basic English skills to being in a senior honors English class. He always had the best essays in class, and not it was not because he could speak the language so eloquently. It was because his mind speaks language so eloquently and then he finds a way to translate it into English,” she said of Farah, who also speaks Somali and Arabic.
Farah has not seen his biological parents or siblings since he was two. They speak occasionally through international phone calls; once, his family was able to send home some photographs by mail. Recently he was able to communicate with them to let him know he graduated high school.
“They were happy and proud, I think,” he said.
Beyond graduating as his school’s valedictorian, Farah achieved another milestone this year: he and his aunt and uncle became U.S. citizens. He hopes to be able to see his family in Somalia again after more than 15 years apart.
While he loves his family in Somalia, Farah, who is Muslim, credits Allah and his second parents for his success.
“My uncle he always would push me to do more, to be better and to believe that I can do it,” he said. “They always help me and they encourage me.”
His dream is to become a cardiologist so that he can heal other people with diseases like his.
“My heart was healed and now I want to be able to heal others,” he said.
Farah hoped to attend Western New England University in the fall, but did not receive enough financial aid. He’s now considering attending Springfield Technical Community College.
Shea said she hopes someone will consider sponsoring Farah so that he can continue his education without a major financial burden.
“I have always been impressed by his creative mind and his perseverance,” she said. “ This is a student who is gifted, and spiritual and kind, and he has a love of learning and a drive I have not seen in my 14 years of teaching.”
Masslive, by Elizabeth Román | [email protected]