Let's be clear.
This is not a story about a young immigrant overcoming hardship to find a better life in the United States.
Though Freshta Sahak of Omaha is indeed a 22-year-old immigrant whose family fled war-torn Afghanistan when she was 3. Though she spent 10 years as a refugee in Uzbekistan before her family moved to Omaha.
Though she graduated with honors from Millard North High School in 2008 and earned a bachelor's degree at Creighton University. And today, she dons a white coat during the Creighton ceremony that marks her entrance into medical school.
Sahak does not see herself as a disadvantaged immigrant, succeeding against the odds.
“That's cliché,” she said.
Her struggle for schooling in Uzbekistan helped her to excel in the U.S. education system. Her faith was deepened by the questions she fielded from high school mates about her Muslim heritage in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Her relatives grew closer as they worked together toward financial stability and educational success in their new home.
The experience spurred an empathy for others that led her to choose medicine as a career. Now, three of her four siblings have college degrees, and her 28-year-old brother is a medical student at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.
“Actually, I am very grateful for everything I've been through,” she said. “I've learned many languages and been around many people. It's made me who I am. I wouldn't have it any other way.”
Sahak was born in Kabul, the fourth of five children of architect Nabi and Qamar Sahak. When she was 3 her parents fled with the children to Uzbekistan to escape a growing civil war.
“We left for a vacation and just never came back,” she said.
The family got an apartment in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. The Sahaks intended to stay a few months until things calmed down, but remained in Tashkent for a decade.
Her father was forced to abandon his career. To keep up in school, the Sahak children, who spoke the two languages of their homeland, had to learn two more, Russian and Uzbek.
It was difficult to maintain the balancing act between their heritage as Muslims from Afghanistan and Uzbek culture.
“It wasn't exactly discrimination, but we were different and we were aware of that all the time,” she said.
After five years, Uzbek authorities blocked them from enrolling in school. The Sahak children continued to attend classes as unregistered students.
“We were not allowed to be there, but we went and sat in classes to try to keep up and not be left behind,” she recalled.
She said her older brother, Khalid, now 28, was his high school valedictorian but wasn't allowed to attend college.
“My parents had four other kids who wanted education, and they knew they had to do something,” Sahak said. “We dropped everything and moved to Omaha.”
That was where her mother's younger brother, Naser Oria, had moved to attend the University of Nebraska Medical Center 30 years ago. He now practices medicine in Texas.
The 9/11 attacks delayed their departure from September 2001 until June 2002. Freshta was 12 when her family arrived in Nebraska.
“I spoke not a word of English,” she said. “It was nerve-racking — it was a huge change for all of us. At my age, just starting to be a teenager, to be put in a new situation, everything was different — the language, the people.
“The only thing that was constant was my family, and we turned to each other for support.”
Her father, whose English was limited, found part-time jobs in retail stores. Her mother, who sewed as a hobby in Kabul, found work altering wedding dresses. Her older brother got a job to help support the family. He is now in medical school.
For three years, the family of seven crowded into a three-bedroom town house.
“That was comfortable for us,” she said. “Our mentality is, ‘The bigger the home, the farther apart the family.' We still have only one TV. Whenever we watch, we all sit in the living room. Whoever's oldest in the room gets to decide the program. We're mindful of each other.”
She giggled. “I'm not going to watch the Kardashians when my brothers are sitting there.”
So far her younger brother, Hamed, 20, is the only one of the five Sahak children without a college degree. He begins attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha this fall. Her sister Zohra, 26, has a degree in education and will start teaching full time this fall. Her sister Maryam, 24, recently graduated from UNO with a religious studies degree.
Freshta thrived at Millard North Junior High, quickly making the honor roll and seeking out extracurricular activities. She was elected to student council and served as junior class president at Millard North. She helped start a Muslim group for high schoolers in the Omaha area.
“I was a straight-A student — that was my push, my motivation,” she said, adding that school in the United States seemed a lot easier than school in Uzbekistan.
“After learning Russian and Uzbek, I found English a lot easier to pick up,” she said.
She said she likes the U.S. education system.
“I enjoyed how everything was set up, the teaching style, the classroom. It all worked for me.”
She chose Creighton because of its prestige as a private university and because it was close to her family. Most of her tuition was paid with scholarships. She also has scholarships that will help pay for medical school, although she will have to take on student loans.
As a Creighton undergraduate Sahak worried about how a Muslim would fit in at a Jesuit university. She found she had a lot in common with other students.
“Their faith was important to them; my faith was important to me,” she said. “Even though they were different religions, they shared the same values, the focus on helping others.”
Sahak initially had doubts about whether to pursue a medical career.
Her time in Uzbekistan did not give her a favorable impression of doctors, she said. She often translated for her parents during their doctor appointments and felt the quality of medical care depended on how much money you had.
“You paid doctors to get the right diagnosis,” she said.
Because she loved science, she enrolled in Creighton to pursue a pharmacy or nursing degree.
After participating in a summer research program at the NU Medical Center, she realized she had a growing interest in medicine and health care for under-served populations.
“It helped me realize that the way I want to help people, that's possible through medicine,” she said. “My professor told me ‘You have to have a fire in your tummy.' I have a fire in my tummy for medicine.”
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