ANN ARBOR – Lanah Almatroud left Damascus, Syria, in 2013 with her family as the civil war in her home country was spinning out of control. She was in seventh grade.
I met her at a local cafe, and as far as first impressions go, the young girl in front of me was a carefree, bubbly American high school senior with one thing on her mind: College.
She spoke excellent English, with an ever-so-subtle Arabic accent that only emerged on certain words. The truth, however, is that it took Almatroud years of hard work to get to where she is today.
The life she and her family left behind in Syria was a bright one.
"We used to live in the downtown area of Damascus," Almatroud said. "We had a really nice house in the center of town. My mother was a pharmacist and owned a pharmacy, and my dad was one of the managers for the Ministry of Economy. They were both paid really well."
But not long after the Arab Spring protests began in 2011, the effects of the situation began to be felt in the capital city.
"I remember the electricity would go off regularly and the prices went up," said Almatroud. "There were a lot of bombs; I could hear them. I remember one time I was just sitting on the couch and the house vibrated because a car got bombed (on my street). One time the courtyard of my school got bombed in an airstrike."
Almatroud recalled that her family knew people who were kidnapped and held for ransom, but once the families delivered the ransom money, their relatives were never seen again.
"We decided to move here," she said. "My parents found this the best option for us and for our future."
Lanah (top right) with her parents and her sisters, Shahd and Yara (Courtesy: Lanah Almatroud)
Unlike most refugees, Almatroud and her family already had family living here. Her uncle is a local doctor and housed the family for a year in his home, helping them with everything required to resettle in the U.S.
The biggest challenge? Almatroud and her siblings didn't speak a word of English.
"We came in April, so there was April, May and June until the end of the school year. It was kind of hard. The school (Scarlett Middle School) was much bigger than my old school and I didn’t know how to communicate with the students or the staff. Everyone was really nice to me and really helpful. I remember a guy and a girl knew Arabic and they helped me get to class."
Until her freshman year, Almatroud attended summer school in order to improve her English. By eighth grade, she was a straight A student.
Once Almatroud started ninth grade at Skyline High School, she realized she needed to push herself further.
"That’s when the GPA starts to matter," she said. "I realized I had to push myself just to give something back to my parents because they left their high-paying jobs to come here. My cousin, who was born here, used to help me a lot and tutor me and translate things."
Almatroud's mother is a translator at a school and her father manages a Subway. They were forced to abandon their professions due to the language barrier.
"In ninth and tenth grade, I had an English as a second language teacher who used to sit in class with me in social studies class, science class, and take notes and then after school or after class he would sit and explain everything in simpler English," said Almatroud. "So every day in every class he helped me. He passed away after sophomore year in a canoeing accident, which was my first tragic (loss). It was really hard."
In her high school career she has maintained a GPA of 3.9 and has been accepted to several universities in the area. She hopes to major in biochemistry and is thinking about dentistry as a career path.
Despite the excitement of college acceptances, she still misses Syria.
A happy childhood: Almatroud as a young girl in Syria (Courtesy: Lanah Almatroud)
"All of my friends and family are still in Damascus," she said. "As of March, it’s getting better. They have electricity all the time. The prices are still really high but there are less check points.
"Even with all that’s going on right now, I wouldn’t mind moving back. I feel like my friends (in Syria) are having more fun than I am!"
That's probably because Almatroud has thrown herself into student life at Skyline. She is the treasurer of the Skyline Red Cross Club, she is a committee head for TEDx Youth, she has been a member of the National Honor Society for two years and was in the French Club her freshman and sophomore years.
If that wasn't enough on her plate, she volunteers at the Multicultural Academy on Platt Road after school, on days off and during the summer. Children from all over the world attend the school, including Syrian refugees.
"I just love it because I remember when I was in their place -- a young child who did not know how to behave and interact in my new community," she said. "So this school feels like a second home to the students there. It teaches them all the necessary subjects to graduate middle school, and also Arabic. It also focuses a lot on English as a second language class since they all don't speak English very well."
On weekends, she sees movies, goes to the mall, goes ice skating and bowling with her sisters and cousins, who are all the same age.
But she says her parents are to thank for her success, and ultimately, her safety.
"Throughout high school and middle school, my motivation was my parents the whole time because they did a lot for us," she said. "Now they are getting paid less, we have a smaller house, and we were used to living a different type of life.
"The thing I will always remember is, even though my parents don’t have really high paying jobs, they saved up for my car when I turned 16. They got me a car so I don’t feel different from people at my school."