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Published May 28 2010

Up to the challenge

The paper handed to Hussein Jilani on Sunday will likely hand him a life his family never had.

A world away from his parents and six siblings, the Somali native will receive his high school diploma.

“It was tough in the beginning,” the 20-year-old West Fargo senior said. “I wanted to give up, but I didn’t. I knew the reason I left my family was to educate myself.”

After moving from war-torn Somalia to Saudi Arabia to work, Jilani decided to immigrate to the U.S. He was placed by Lutheran Social Services in Fargo on a cold January day three and a half years ago.

He arrived with little education and speaking no English but with a lot of motivation to attain a better life and an education.

It didn’t take him long to become proficient in English. He joined mainstream high school classes and maintained a 3.6 GPA, all that while working nearly 30 hours a week this year washing dishes at the Olive Garden in Fargo.

“If you have that willingness to study, you will,” he said.

Typically, English Language Learner teacher Matt Montonye said, it takes refugee students seven years to gain proficiency.

“Sometimes there are anomalies like Hussein,” Montonye said. “He just

gives 100 percent all the time in every class.”

It hasn’t always been easy, though.

Struggling to catch on to English, Jilani contemplated quitting school until his teachers placed him in more challenging classes, spurring him to step up.

And he did.

At 7:30 a.m. every day, he’d attend classes at West Fargo High School, work on homework and catch a short nap before working five hours into the night.

He said his family was his motivation to keep going.

“When you know you have to do something for your family … you have that passion to work,” he said.

The money he earns helps support his family in Saudi Arabia while also funding life on his own in Fargo (he also receives aid and assistance from Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota).

Jilani hasn’t seen his family in five years but talks to them every Saturday. He hopes to return to them someday.

Until then, he’ll be working on another degree.

He plans to start college at Minnesota State Community and Technical College next year and then go on to earn a degree in civil engineering at either North Dakota State University or the University of North Dakota.

It’s an ambitious goal for a young man who, on Sunday, will be the first in his family to receive a high school degree.

“Nobody had this high of an education,” he said. “Getting this diploma means a lot.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515