Christina Saada was 8 years old when the war began in Syria in 2011. As the conflict got worse, she said her father would turn her head and shield her eyes to block her view of lifeless bodies in the streets as he walked her to school.
The family had planned for many years to join relatives in the United States but the conflict added urgency to that plan.
"In one second, it changed everything," the 17-year-old Reynolds High School senior said of the outbreak of the war nine years ago.
Now, after a long journey, Saada is an honor student at Reynolds High School, involved in multiple extra-curricular activities and just recently won a prestigious Beat the Odds college scholarship.
She has many fans.
"Christina is a compassionate, fiercely dedicated student," said Eric Wergeland, her science teacher at Reynolds High School.
Her current life is a big change from her childhood.
Saada lived with her family in Qatana, Syria, a suburb about 30 minutes drive from the country's capital of Damascus. The fighting got close.
"We would hear bombs in Damascus and gun shots in our village," she said.
As the conflict swelled, Saada said, "They would close schools sometimes. Sometimes there was no electricity and no water in the summer."
She admits she was often frightened, "but you get used to it. People go out anyway. People want to live their life."
Qatana, with a population of about 34,000 when Saada was born, was about 65% Sunni Muslim, 20% Christian and 15% Alawites, a sect of Islam. Saada is from a Christian family, but said as a child she did not feel any ill will from her Muslim neighbors.
"Our Muslim neighbors were nice. Before the war, we'd celebrate each other's holidays," she said.
The conflict got very close when a neighbor was killed and bullets lodged in the second story of their two-family home, which was occupied by her cousins.
Saada's aunt, who lives in Cleveland, began working on the family's paperwork to leave Syria in 2003. The process wasn't completed until 2016.
"It took us 13 years," Saada said.
So in 2016, the family moved to Lakewood, Ohio, near Cleveland. Although Saada studied English in Syria, she said it was primarily grammar. She actually spoke very little English. But she learned quickly. She did her freshman year in high school in Lakewood and after a year in Ohio, the family moved to Portland after her father got a job in Oregon.
Saada's family is Orthodox Christian, and her father is a priest. A priest was needed at the church in Portland. Her mother studied pharmacy after the family arrived in Portland and got her license as a pharmacy technician and works in a drug store.
An older brother attends Portland Community College and a younger brother goes to charter school Rockwood Preparatory Academy.
Reynolds placed Saada in classes for students whose first language is not English. But that lasted less than a year before she moved to regular classes in all subjects.
Despite spending a short time in Jordan and the family's several moves, Saada did not miss much school and will graduate on time with the class of 2020.
She counts math as her favorite subject and said schools in Syria taught more advanced math.
"The math I learned in seventh grade in Syria, I was learning in 10th grade here," Saada said.
Saada also likes her chemistry and psychology classes. She's taken two college-level advanced placement classes in statistics and pre-calculus and is on the honor roll with a 3.8 grade point average.
She recently won the Beat the Odds scholarship from Stand for Children, which is $4,000 a year or $16,000 for four years of college.
She's been admitted to several colleges in the Portland area and in Cleveland, but is undecided about where she will go. A lot depends on how much financial aid each college will offer, she said.
She is planning on going to medical school and becoming a surgeon. She said she is also very interested is psychology so is not completely decided.
"She would make a fantastic doctor and I look forward to seeing how far she goes," said Wergeland.
Saada is a member of Reynolds High School Key Club, the school's service club, and is involved in the tech department for theater productions. She helped start the club Students4Equity, to aid students who don't speak English well settle into school better. She's also tutored other students in math as a member of Reynolds Raider2Raider tutoring program.
Wergeland noted that "outside of class she has honed her leadership skills through multiple clubs, especially the Students4Equity. She presented this club to school staff, students, and at multiple conferences highlighting diverse students' experiences at school, sharing stories to build community and connections, and urging schools to better address the needs of our diverse students."
Saada helps out at her church and loves to do the art form Zentangles, creating intricate patterns in pen and ink.
She likes to encourage and motivate people. "I like to tell people they can do it, no matter what your past."
She knows that first hand.
Stand for Children
Beat the Odds scholarships are awarded by the Oregon affiliate of Stand for Children, a national nonprofit education and child advocacy group. The scholarships are targeted to students who have overcome big challenges in life to succeed in school. They support students who often don't have the means to attend college.
This year, 18 Oregon high schoolers received awards of $4,000 per year of college for a total of $16,000 per student.
To apply for a Beat the Odds scholarship, students must have a 3.0 grade point average, financial need and feel empowered to tell their stories. They also have to have overcome difficulties in their lives.
For more information or to make a donation, visit: stand.org.
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