AUGUSTA — The path Ahmed Al Abbas has taken to earn his U.S. high school diploma has been long and dangerous and colored with deja vu.

Al Abbas, in fact, has a diploma already as well as a college degree. But those were earned in his native Iraq. Now that he is a legal resident of the United States, he wants those things again in this country.

Al Abbas joined more than 60 classmates Friday in being recognized for their accomplishments in earning either a high school or HiSET (general educational development) diploma at the Augusta Adult and Community Education Commencement at Cony High School. More than 300 family members, friends and Adult and Community Ed staff members greeted Al Abbas and his classmates, clad in red caps and gowns, with cheers, whoops and a standing ovation as they filed into place.

Commencement speaker Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, told the graduates they are heroes.

“Have you ever seen a movie where the main character goes though life with everything easy and pleasant? No,” she said, “because that would be boring movie. We want to be the main character, the hero of the movie, to face challenges and overcome those challenges. Well, guess what? You are the hero of your own movie. All of you are ordinary people who have faced extraordinary life challenges and you have become heroes.”

That’s an apt analogy for Al Abbas in several ways.

At 25, he’s self-possessed and focused on his goals for his life ahead, which include continuing his education to work either in accounting or information technology. The years of turmoil in Iraq and in transition for him and his family are behind him.

Earlier in the week, Al Abbas detailed his journey to Augusta, which started, oddly enough, by learning to speak English at the movies when he was a child.

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he started improving his English skills working for the U.S. Army and spending time around Americans, first in construction, then as an air conditioning technician. His family was very poor, and he needed the income he earned to support them. During that time, he learning more about Americans than movies could teach him.

“They are not kidding. They are very serious.” And, he said, they have a great deal of humanity. “I had no problem with the Army or the United States.”

In the chaos of Baghdad during the war, he had to earn money to support his parents and two sisters, even while he was attending the University of Baghdad, pursuing a degree in media production.

“That was for my family,” he said. “I didn’t like it.”

Then the opportunity came to be an interpreter. At 17, he was the youngest in the camp, translating Arabic into English and English into Arabic in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area in the center of the city, for whoever needed the service.

The job, though, came a high personal cost.

The Iraqi insurgency that opposed the U.S. occupation — Al Abbas called them terrorists — made it clear to him that he and his family couldn’t stay.

“I couldn’t breathe,” he said, detailing the anxiety that ballooned. “I felt there was danger for my family.”

They fled south to Karbala and worked to secure their visas. About three years ago, Al Abbas arrived in the United States with his family, thanks to the special immigration visa offered to Iraqis who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government. After he and his family moved from New Hampshire to Augusta, he sought out Augusta Adult and Community Education.

“When we came here, I learned those other degrees from Iraq will not work here,” Al Abbas said, shrugging.

Maine is far different from Iraq, he said. “It’s like heaven for us.”

With one notable exception, it’s been a quiet, safe place for him and his family, where the people are open-minded and welcoming. That exception was a fight that broke out in the parking lot of a Bangor nightclub between him and some friends and a group of locals. No charges were brought, but he ended up with broken glasses and $6,000 hospital bill. That was the first only time he has experienced anything like that since relocating.

As the sole support for his family still, he’s been working in home care and on call for printer J.S. McCarthy doing folding work. Recently, he’s been buying used cars, fixing them up and reselling them. In a couple of months, he’ll start looking into applying to college, this time to study what he wants.

“I am starting from zero. It’s not big deal,” he said. ” This is winning.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ


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