Laith Alishaqi is driven to make this a better world for others
When Laith Alishaqi was in fourth grade, he didn’t understand what his teacher or the students in his classroom were saying.
That’s because Alishaqi, who was born in Iraq and lived for four years in Yemen, didn’t know English.
“I remember that first day,” he said. “There were all these strangers. And when the teacher was speaking to the class and to me I didn’t understand anything.”
Alishaqi was determined that it wasn’t going to be that way for very long.
He poured all of his energy into his English Language Learner classes, and in one year he was proficient enough to “graduate” from ELL to advance to fifth grade on his own.
“What I learned is that the teachers were really helpful if you actually asked for help,” he said. “I wanted to get on the good side of teachers because I needed their help.”
Having an older brother and two younger siblings – Abdulla, Saif and Lina – also helped the transition, as they all needed to learn English.
At the time, there were many other immigrants in Fargo, North Dakota, which Alishaqi also credited for helping to build up his confidence and speed up his adjustment to a new country.
“It felt really good I know I accomplished something,” said Alishaqi, who graduated from Lakeville South High School on Thursday. “It is really amazing how fast I learned a language and new life.”
Alishaqi was born in 2001 in Baghdad and the family moved to Yemen after it was too dangerous to live there following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition.
He said he can remember Humvees driving down the road outside his house as the fighting resulted in the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government.
Alishaqi said the family was in Yemen for about two years before unrest started building in that country, making it unsafe for civilians.
It was a long process for the family to gain immigration approval to the U.S., but Alishaqi’s father earned his visa and moved the family to Fargo.
“I left with the mindset that the whole world was going to be horrible,” said Alishaqi, whose extended family members also left Iraq and are living throughout the U.S. “Nothing good happened until I came here. I learned that people can actually be nice and loving.”
The family moved to Lakeville in the summer of Alishaqi’s ninth-grade year after his dad Omar Alishaqi got a job as technician and his mother Luma Mahdi started work as a medical interpreter. They moved in large part because they sought a wider array of cultural options the Twin Cities could provide.
He said he was able to make friends over the summer by playing sports like soccer, which helped ease his transition at the start of the school year.
Alishaqi said he made friends quickly among those he considered outsiders or the ones who were different.
When school started though he realized that friends were easy to make despite their differences.
“I had to get comfortable with suburban life. I had to get used to it,” he said. “But now I know how peaceful it is, for example, to go out on a boat during the summer. I had to learn to appreciate those things, then I was able to make friends.”
In his classes, Alishaqi said his parents provided much support along the way, so by the time he reached high school he had strong study habits.
He admits that he didn’t take hard classes at first, but he started to challenge himself in his junior year by taking more difficult courses.
That’s the year that he started playing boys volleyball at Lakeville South. The club team isn’t sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League, but Alishaqi said the team has great coaches, including Stephen Willingham, a coach for 33 years in Lakeville.
He said it’s a great team game that he hopes will one day be played at all Minnesota high schools.
Alishaqi also enjoys working in teams in the classroom, such as those he experienced in the class Engineering of the Future.
“I love working with others toward a certain goal,” he said. “Working together, it raises our standards a little.”
Alishaqi said when he was growing up he liked shows like “Handy Manny” and “Bob the Builder,” which led him to like working with his hands.
Earlier this year, he built a Little Free Library for people to pick up a book and leave books they’ve already read.
He said he also likes doing routine maintenance on cars.
“I like doing the little things that prepare me for the big things,” he said.
Alishaqi plans to attend the University of Minnesota in the fall to study biology and civil engineering. He said the dual path should give him options after graduation, saying he has an interest in dental school.
Alishaqi has an older brother, Abdulla, who is a sophomore at Minnesota State University-Mankato studying mechanical engineering.
He said college isn’t hard, it’s the time management that’s hard.
“You have to determine when you want to study and when you want to have fun,” he said.
Alishaqi welcomes that idea since he says he “lives by routine,” such as his recent monthlong fasting for Ramadan.
He said it’s not as difficult as people would think to fast from sunrise to sunset, but the no water rule is tough.
Training his body to acclimate to what others would view as a hardship gives Alishaqi the background and the desire to want something better for him and his family.
“I love my family,” he said. “They have gone through so much. They have given up their whole lives and I have to pay them back in some way.”
Tad Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.