By Seth Daniel
There are a lot of inspirational stories that float around at graduation time – students succeeding against all odds – but few can top Charlestown’s Bilal Lafta, who graduated as the valedictorian this month of the Boston Community Leadership Academy (BCLA) in Hyde Park.
He will attend Brown University in Providence this fall.
Lafta has lived on Medford Street in Charlestown for the past four years, during all of his high school career, but started his life dodging violence as the war in Iraq progressed to a more and more dangerous state. At one time living in a refugee camp and having no access to education, Lafta said he would often sneak out of the camp and walk some distance to a library that allowed him to read the few books they had to offer.
It was something he savored, and when he came to Charlestown, it was a mindset he continued as he went through his academic career making the most out of everything that was offered.
“My key to success was to really value the resources I had,” he said. “Even if there weren’t that many resources in my high school, I valued them just like I valued the few books I could get my hands on at the library I would walk to when I lived in a refugee camp in Iraq as a child. If my school only offered eight Advanced Placement (AP) courses where suburban schools offered 20, then I took all eight. I decided to take all of them and value those that I had. If my school only offered debate, chess club and running club, then I decided I would participate in all of them and not worry about what I didn’t have. I have appreciated everything given to me, and I have also decided to fight for more resources at the same time…It was really because of some of the experiences I had in my childhood that pushed me to take advantage of every resource offered. I have some friends who didn’t experience the lack of resources. I let my experiences motivate me to be so much better.”
Lafta was one of the key students at the forefront of fighting against budget cuts during the past year – very visible at the School Committee speaking with Supt. Tommy Chang and Mayor Martin Walsh. That, he said, was because BCLA was one school that was going to take the biggest hits.
He said he decided to be vocal because he knew that things could be taken away in an instant – as had been the case with his school in Iraq.
He was born in Baghdad in 1998 and when he was 5 years old, the time to go to school, Iraq really became a very dysfunctional country.
“I got to see a classroom that didn’t have the tools students needed to be successful and it was very chaotic,” he said. “I can remember how dangerous it was. I remember when we would have to evacuate school early because a bomb had gone off nearby. At the end of 2005, Baghdad was so unstable that we were told by American troops to evacuate our home and find a safer place to live.”
Lafta said the family separated, with he and his father going to a refugee camp north of Baghdad and his mother and siblings going to a camp south of Baghdad. At the camp, that’s when Lafta began to venture out against his father’s will to find some books.
“I really, really missed school and we had no school in the camp,” he said. “There was a little library nearby and my father was scared of me going there, but I would sneak away just to get to the library to read a few books. I valued that so much. It was only a very small collection, but it was very important to me at the time. When I came to the U.S. and saw there were so many resources for students to pursue education, I decided I was going to take advantage of everything.”
After spending two years in Egypt, Lafta and his reunited family were relocated by the United Nations to Tucson. He said it was a strange place to land, as he envisioned big cities, snow and skyscrapers in America, and ended up being plopped down in a desert environment not much different than Iraq.
“Instead of skyscrapers, it was desert, cactus and coyotes,” he laughed.
In 2010, his family decided to relocate to Boston and landed in Charlestown.
“We came to Boston because we knew there was great educational opportunities and Boston is known as the medical hub and there are exciting things happening here, unlike Tucson,” he said.
Throughout his incredible journey, from Iraqi refugee camp to a 4.95 GPA in an American high school, one of the greatest moments came when he entered his first classroom in Boston and saw such a diverse group – something that didn’t happen in Iraq.
“When I entered my American classroom and it was full of all kids of different races, religions and cultures, it was a big thing,” he said. “It was very important to me. It said to me that no matter what religion or culture you have in this country, you will have a chance to find success.”