While most 12-year-old girls spend their time navigating the adolescent landscape, surviving classroom cliques and worrying about math quizzes, Elmera Takhtrawan was navigating mountains into Bosnia, surviving a refugee camp and worrying that her family could be put to death.
Takhtrawan, who is graduating from Shadle Park High School on Friday, her mother, brother and two sisters, fled Tehran, Iran, into Turkey when she was 12.
Her father, a devout Muslim and general in the Iranian military, reported her mother, a Christian, to the government.
The Iranian Constitution is based upon an interpretation of the Quran and Islamic law. According to the law, the conversion of a Muslim to another religion is forbidden. Muslims convicted of “apostasy” face the death penalty.
The family escaped to Turkey through the Christian underground. Then they climbed mountains into Bosnia. They had no passports and walked from country to country, under the cover of darkness.
“I was scared, but I was more afraid of being separated from my family,” said Takhtrawan.
They spent the next two and a half years in a German refugee camp. The room was tiny with moss growing on the walls. Thirty families shared two bathrooms and one shower. When they left the camp they spent the next six months with her aunt near Durtmond, Germany.
They considered moving to Belgium, but in August 2001, a private Christian group arranged for them to move to the United States.
Then came 9/11. The process was slowed down as immigration laws were tightened.
After several months they were approved, and they arrived first in New York, then in Seattle and finally settled in Spokane in March 2002.
Takhtrawan said that her family didn’t pick Spokane; the U.S. government picked it for them.
“That was good, I love Spokane. I feel safe here,” said Takhtrawan.
She hadn’t attended school in three years and didn’t speak English when she moved here. From April to June 2002 she was enrolled in the Newcomer Program at Havermale High School where she took an English as a second language class.
She began her sophomore year at Shadle in the fall. She chose Shadle because her ESL teacher Frank Newman was there.
She enrolled in Mike Miller’s German language class, where she could communicate with him and fellow students in a language other than English.
She quickly assimilated into American culture and excelled in her classes. Her senior year she took advanced placement classes in English, biology, European History and German, earning a 4.0 grade-point average.
“I think the system here is great. If teachers see ability, they can help encourage you to do more. The teachers here are amazing. They really look out for me. They’re like my mom and dad. I can’t put into words how much they’ve done for me,” said Takhtrawan.
The students also have been very supportive. “The kids don’t care how I speak. They don’t make fun of me,” said Takhtrawan.
Newman said that he has never had a student come through his program and within two years take a full load of advanced college preparatory classes.
She is a class valedictorian and has been accepted into the honors program at Eastern Washington University where she received a presidential scholarship.
Takhtrawan said that she has received enough scholarship money that she won’t have to worry about student loans.
Applying for scholarships meant writing numerous essays, and her English teacher Jacqueline Lake, German teacher Miller, guidance counselor Jeanne Lancaster, and mathematics teacher JoAnn Tripp all have helped her with the process.
What does she do for fun? “I study. I like doing homework.” She also volunteers at Holy Family Hospital and tutors students in Shadle’s Integrated Math and Math Recovery Programs. She helps them with their math and they help her improve her English.
Her lifelong dream is to become a physician. “I love babies, but I also would like to do research,” said Takhtrawan.
Last summer, she was selected to participate in a six-week U-DOC Summer College Program at the University of Idaho, in cooperation with Washington State University.
She was one of 18 college-bound women from Eastern Washington and Idaho selected to study chemistry, microbiology, conduct original research and write college-level essays. Her research paper was so outstanding it was sent to the University of Washington.
Jeanne Lancaster writes in a letter to a scholarship committee, “Her personal story is so inspiring and remarkable that I sometimes just sit in awe of her. She has such an optimistic disposition and appreciation of life that when she walks in the office, it brings a smile to our faces.”
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