From refugee camp to cap and gown

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LEWISTON — When Shobow Saban’s name was called last week, he walked across the stage in his blue cap and gown, flashing a smile that lit up his face.

The first in his family to graduate from high school, Saban, 18, is proud. “I’m really, really happy,” he said.

His road to graduation at Lewiston High School was not an easy one.

Born in war-torn Somalia, he grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp where he watched his father die because of inadequate medical care. In 2006, he immigrated to the United States with his mother and five brothers, living in an Atlanta neighborhood surrounded by drug users.

Life got better, Saban said, when his family moved to Lewiston and he became part of the Lewiston Middle School soccer team.

“A lot of doors opened for me because of soccer,” he said.

Saban is a Bantu, a group that had little access to schools. He was a baby when his family fled Somalia. His family has told him what it was like.

His grandfather, father and uncles had a good life there. His grandfather owned property, a farm, animals, a car. Then the war came.

“One day there was a guy with a gun,” Saban said. “My grandfather was a brave man. He told the guy he should leave. The guy holding the gun said, ‘Don’t talk to me like that or I’ll shoot you.’ They argued.”

The trespasser shot and killed his grandfather, Saban said. “Everything changed.” They were robbed of their possessions. Terrified, they fled to Kenya.

The refugee camps weren’t easy, but Saban got some schooling and learned English.

But that didn’t help much in Atlanta, where the family lived for five months.

“I could speak English, but their English was different,” Saban said. The southern accent is different than the northern. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.”

At his Georgia school, they didn’t like soccer. They made fun of his accent. “I was afraid to ask questions,” he said.

His mother, Bilow Farah, got a call from a friend in Lewiston recommending that she move here. They came in December 2006, and were introduced to winter.

At first, they didn’t have jackets and boots.

“I was astonished,” Saban said of the cold and snow. “What is this? Why am I shaking?”

“Now we live with it,” his mother said through an interpreter.

He enrolled in the middle school.

“I met a lot of friends,” he said. “I started playing soccer in the eighth grade. My best friend, Johnny McDonough, recruited me. Because of Johnny, I got to know a lot of people.”

Initially, he was placed in English language learning classes. They were too easy. He asked for more challenging classes and because he did well on an exam, he was mainstreamed.

When he got to high school, he didn’t like it at first. It was big and scary, he said.

High school improved when he made the soccer team.

Many people helped him, he said, his teachers, soccer coaches and guidance counselor Debra Cloutier-Baggs. “She helped me not only academically but socially.”

His mother encouraged him.

“She was always telling me, ‘Knowledge is power. If you don’t have knowledge, you won’t succeed in life,’” Saban said.

Because English wasn’t his first language, he worked hard at reading comprehension. He read all the time. If he didn’t understand something, he stayed after school to ask questions. He often did homework until midnight, and got up at 6 a.m. to help his mother get his five younger brothers to school.

“Being the oldest and you don’t have a father, everything’s on you,” he said.

Saban has been accepted at four colleges, including Assumption in Worcester, Mass., and Husson in Bangor.

Which one he attends “comes down to money,” he said.

He plans a career in health care.

“Every time I walk in a hospital, I remember my father dying,” he said. “I want to become a physician’s assistant.”

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