Students attend Central Piedmont Community College for many reasons, but the story of 20-year-old Riyam Al Ghrary’s journey to CPCC surely ranks among the most harrowing.
It began in Iraq, about six years ago, on the day she was kidnapped. It will culminate Thursday evening, as she accepts her diploma at Bojangles’ Coliseum, one of about 1,900 graduates, the largest number in CPCC’s 50-year history. She was student body vice president and a scholarship winner. She’s graduating with a 4.0 average.
Six years ago, when she arrived in Charlotte at age 14, Riyam (pronounced rye-um) couldn’t imagine such success. “I didn’t think realistically I would be able to go to this English-speaking country and do anything productive there,” she says. “I thought I would stay home every day. I didn’t think I would fit in, ever.”
Riyam sat Wednesday in a campus office, a poised young woman with a ponytail and hands she clasped primly in her lap, recalling the series of tragedies that brought her to the U.S.
One uncle who had been an interpreter for the U.S. military was assassinated. Another uncle died in an explosion outside a market. An aunt was fatally shot while riding in a car with her children. By 2006, the violence in Iraq triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion was so widespread that she had grown to expect it.
Riyam’s mother was a pharmacist and her father a lawyer. She attended a private girls school. Once, a bullet came through the school, grazing her head but killing another girl. When there was no electricity, she studied by flashlight.
On an afternoon in 2006, she and her family were driving from Baghdad to visit relatives. It was a holiday, so the roads were nearly empty when a black van approached and a man began shooting. A bullet shattered the back window. Her father pulled to a stop.
A second van arrived. Masked, rifle-wielding kidnappers emerged and surrounded the family’s car. One man dragged her father from the driver’s seat, bound his hands, blindfolded him, shoved him into a van and took off.
Another kidnapper took the wheel of the family’s car, driving fast and recklessly. While he drove, he stayed on a cellphone, apparently trying to find out what he was supposed to do with her family. Her mother, Bann Al Ghrary, held her 3-year-old brother in the front seat. Riyam sat, silent with fear, in the back with her sister and a younger brother, Yasir, who has autism. Yasir kept talking and yelling.
“It really aggravated the guy,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Tell him to stop, or I’ll blow his head off.’ ”
Since she arrived in Charlotte, Riyam has told this story repeatedly, so many times that she can recount details without emotion. She is blessed with a bad memory, she said, smiling a little. She has forgotten many things. She only remembers the stories, like this one, that she tells again and again.
The kidnapper drove through a primitive mud-hut village, then back to the highway, where he finally stopped. The two black vans rejoined them. Riyam’s father emerged from one. A kidnapper apologized. A misunderstanding, he said.
“I was like, ‘Seriously?’ ” she recalled.
The family drove home. But Riyam’s mother, Bann, decided she had to take her children to America for their safety. Bann chose Charlotte because she had been born here. Her father, the late Hamiz Al Ghrary, had worked for years in Charlotte as a civil engineer.
In fall 2007, old friends helped Bann Al Ghrary and her four children get an apartment. Bann found a job as a pharmacy technician. Bann’s husband, who has lived in Iraq his whole life, has remained there.
When Riyam walked into her first class at Ardrey Kell High, she didn’t know enough English to respond to students who tried talking with her. But at home, she listened to TV programs and insisted on speaking English, not Arabic. By her junior year, she no longer needed English as a Second Language classes.
Today, she could be mistaken for a native English speaker.
“Really?” she asked when she was told this. “Awesome.”
Though she made good grades at Ardrey Kell and graduated in 2011, Riyam didn’t feel ready to take the SAT. “I didn’t really know that much about the American college system,” she says. “It just felt so intimidating.”
But when she visited CPCC, she felt comfortable. She followed a friend’s advice to get involved in student government. And she thrived.
Riyam is no longer intimidated by American colleges. She’ll begin studies in biology at UNC Chapel Hill in August. She toured the campus in the fall and found it beautiful. “They had a lot of awesome stories about it, like the Old Well,” she said.
She would like to become a dentist. “It comes back to what I witnessed in Iraq,” she said. There was no preventive dentistry. If you had a bad tooth, you suffered until it was pulled.
“I thought it was just horrible,” she said. “Part of what makes me want to do this is there are a lot of needy families here.”
She wants to care for people who can’t afford it. She plans to stay in America. Making big money isn’t her goal. “I was rich before,” she said.
People often ask if she’s angry at the United States for invading Iraq. She is not. “Iraq never had a happy period,” she said. “It’s not like anything was ruined.”
But violence marred much of her childhood. Does she ever have nightmares? Does she worry about post-traumatic stress?
Riyam smiled a small smile and shook her head, sending her dark ponytail back and forth.
“No,” she said. “I’m good.”
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