One graduate's journey from Sudan to Gates scholarshipby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
More than 57,000 students will graduate from Minnesota high schools this spring. Everyone who meets her thinks Nidal Azreg Zakria Karif Kram will be special among them.
She's one of 18 Minnesotans who won a prestigious Gates Millenium Scholarship, for one thing. But Nidal's story is even more remarkable than that.
Fridley, Minn. — Nidal Kram is a senior at Fridley High School and she'll be going to Lawrence University next fall. She wants to major in biology and anthropology.
That'll be in Appleton, Wis., a long, long way from a thatched hut in Dabri, a village of about 500 people in central Sudan. Nidal still has a picture of the mud brick house where she grew up, with chickens and homemade furniture in the yard.
She got a second grade education there, mostly from her mother.
"School was really interesting, actually. We really didn't have many things at all. We sat in sand because my mother made us," said Nidal. "She said, 'We don't have notebooks, we really don't have much of anything, so we're going to go get sand and we're going to practice writing with our fingers on the sand.'"
"When we were fortunate, I got a half pencil," she continued. "That half pencil was supposed to last a year. But it never really did last."
But it wasn't poverty that shaped her life as much as bloody political unrest.
Sudan's Arab and Christian communities had been fighting a bitter civil war for two generations after the end of Britain's colonial rule.
Nidal's village sat right between the two warring sides. Her father was an outspoken member of the National Democratic Alliance of Sudan, the principal opposition to the ruling regime in Khartoum, the capital.
"Jan, 1 is our Independence Day, and so a lot of the times in the village we would march on Jan. 1 to kind of say we want to be independent," Nidal said of one memorable New Year's. "My aunt, I think was carrying me on her shoulder when they shot her. I remember the taste of blood. She died."
Her grandfather was thrown in prison and her uncle exiled, as well.
The threat of repression eventually drove Nidal and her family to Khartoum and then to Egypt. Nidal's education came to a halt -- she was needed to take care of her younger siblings.
They and their parents later joined family already in Minneapolis, and Nidal started school again, this time as a fifth grader.
Nidal still remembers the first day.
"I walked in and said, 'There's desks. And books.' And it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen," said Nidal. "The teacher's name was Mrs. Anderson. And she handed me a box of crayons, and lots and lots of pencils. That was probably my favorite thing was the pencils, because I only got half a pencil and my brother usually got the eraser half. And I never got an eraser of my own. So I was excited to get the eraser."
It got harder from there, though.
Nidal and her cousins were the only Sudanese refugees in Minneapolis schools at the time. Even the district's Arabic interpreter had trouble with their accent, she remembers. He was from Lebanon and Nidal had trouble with his French accent. He struggled with their East African dialect.
Nidal said her frustrations grew, and her angry outbursts made her a regular in the school office. She wanted to return to Dabri.
"The war was bad, but I kind of felt like, at least there, I'm going to be struggling with the rest of my family. At school, it was just me. And no one understood what I was saying, at all," Nidal recalled. "I want to go back to the village. Because that's where I come from, that's where I want to go back."
But a sympathetic teacher took her in, listened to her story, and eventually got her grades from a string of Fs to her first A. Within two years, she was at the top of her class.
She hasn't looked back.
She went to Roosevelt High School and enrolled in Admission Possible, a program that helps low-income kids get ready for college.
Even after her family moved to Fridley last year -- there are nine of them, including her orphaned cousins and her grandmother -- Nidal kept up with her school work and kept going in the Admission Possible program after school.
Nidal quickly made a mark in Fridley, according to English teacher Kaitlin Maguire.
"She just stands out in every classroom that she's in. She really values education and every moment of it," said Maguire. "She's there for every second and wants to get the most out every minute, because she knows it's going to propel her to the next step in her life."
Nidal boned up for her ACTs, applied to Lawrence University and put in for scholarships. In April, she won a Millennium Scholars award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It will give her a free ride through college and beyond.
"This really opens the door for these kids," said Steve Fenster, the Admission Possible coach that helped her get into college. Nidal is one of 13 kids in the program to get a Gates scholarship.
"It's going to change her life forever," Fenster said.
For her part, Nidal wants to go to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, maybe even medical school at Harvard.
She still remembers watching her infant brother die in Sudan, probably from cholera, although there was no one around who could even diagnose what was killing him.
"By the time I'm done, I am going to save up enough money to go and build a clinic in my village," she said. "And hopefully by then, the war and all the issues that we have will be over. But even if they're not, I'm still going to go do that."
"I believe that it's really, really wrong for my people to die on the road on their way to a hospital because it's hours away," said Nidal. "Everyone deserves a chance to live, and I just want someone else to have that chance."
Nidal's long journey home starts today, when she graduates from Fridley High School.
- Morning Edition, 06/05/2008, 7:50 a.m.