She didn't speak English 6 years ago. Now this Syrian woman is a scholarship winner studying nursing at MUN

Jamila Nahhat came to Canada, along with her family, in 2016. Being able to go to school was one of the best feelings of her life, she said, she's now continuing her education to ultimately care for people.

Jamila Nahhat's parents tell her education will be her 'backbone and security' in life

A woman wearing a white headscarf stands outside on a paved walkway near green grass.
Jamila Nahhat is studying nursing at Memorial University. In 2011, her family fled war-torn Syria for Lebanon before coming to Canada in 2016. (Submitted by Aisha Elgayar)

A 20-year-old woman who was forced to flee war and destruction in Syria as a child — which caused her education to grind to a halt — is now a high school graduate who is studying nursing at MUN, thanks to a scholarship. 

"I learned the alphabet after my arrival in Canada. In the beginning, I could not understand anything in school, I tried to collect the letters together, then the words to understand what the teachers say," said Jamila Nahhat.

"With the support and encouragement of my teachers, I learned and succeeded to graduate from high school."

Nahhat, who continues to improve her English, graduated from Holy Heart High School in St. John's in 2022. 

It's a long way from where she started. 

She was born in 2002 in Idlib, Syria. Her family, which includes her parents and four younger siblings, fled to Lebanon in 2011. 

"My education was stopped after moving to Lebanon. School fees were more than what my father could afford," said Nahhat. 

"When I knew that we would come to Canada, I was very happy and enthusiastic because I [knew I would] go back to school again."

She said that date — Jan. 5, 2016 — is one she will never forget.

'Shows incredible determination and strength of character'

Nahhat recounts having lots of support while at Holy Heart, but singles out Greg Simmons, head of the newcomer programming, as a particular strong resource. 

Simmons noted Nahhat's family had to make huge adjustments — to a new culture, language and environment. 

"Despite these challenges, Jamila worked incredibly hard during her high-school years to learn the language, bridge her education gaps," he said. "This is an enormous achievement that shows incredible determination and strength of character."

Nahhat had another helpful influence after graduation. 

A woman holds a plaque while standing next to another woman in a black and white shirt in front of balloons and streamers on the wall behind them.
Nahhat is pictured with Michelle Wall, who helped her apply for a Fry Family Foundation scholarship.  (Submitted by Aisha Elgayar)

Michelle Wall, the Community Centre Alliance's community employment facilitator, helped Nahhat apply for a scholarship from the Fry Family Foundation, a U.S.-based organization founded by Darryl and Marlene Fry. who were educated in St. John's. 

Nahhat was one of the recipients of the foundation's post-secondary scholarships for 2022-23, which recognize youths in their five partnering St. John's neighbourhoods: Froude Avenue, Buckmaster's Circle, MacMorran, Rabbittown and Virginia Park," according to the organization. 

"This was a bit of a process, as Jamila, and she has said this to me, still has trouble with English sometimes. So there was a lot of back and forth, texting, emails and phone calls to ensure she was able to accomplish gathering what she needed and meet the deadline," said Wall.

The scholarship is renewable for three additional years, as long as the student remains in good academic standing.

'Education will be my backbone'

Nahhat knows she has her parents' support. 

"They tell me that education will be my backbone and security in my life, and my degree is what will strengthen and support me."

Emad Mustafa Nahhat, 45, used to work in tiling and ceramics, which is common in Arab countries.

He did not find similar work here in St. John's, so he started working in the cleaning profession. 

"I work night shifts in malls, and all that matters to me is that my children learn and achieve their goals and dreams," he said. 

As for Nahhat's mother, she said she supports their choices. 

"Neither I nor their dad dictates what they should study or do in their future … and I would like them to fulfil all their dreams," said Fatima Muhammad Al-Gharib, 41.

More work to do 

Nahhat is happy about the scholarship but knows there are still challenges ahead. She is used to a level of support from high school teachers that she expects won't be the same at the university level. 

There was even a major mistake before classes started. 

"On my first day at the St. John's campus, I went to the first lecture to ask a student about the place. He told me that it was seven hours away from my current location," she said. 

"By mistake, I registered for courses on the Grenfell campus." 

 Nahhat is determined to succeed and isn't taking anything for granted — including financially. 

"I was fortunate that I got the scholarship, and I am doing my best to renew it, but as I said, the challenges are great, so I started working in the event that I did not get it again, I will rely on myself," she said. 

Simmons said he isn't surprised by his former student's tenacity. 

"Jamila is now in university, working just as hard to continue overcoming past challenges and move forward with her education," he said.

"She is also using her experience to help newcomers to the country adjust to the challenges that they face when they arrive." 

So why choose nursing as a career?

"In Syria, we had a neighbour who worked as a nurse. I remember her in the nursing uniform, and I used to love her," Nahhat said.  

"She used to treat us when we were sick, and I used to tell her that when I grow up, I will become a nurse like you, and my uncle also works as a nurse."

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Aisha Elgayar

Freelance contributor

Aisha Elgayar is a freelance investigative journalist who moved from the Middle East to St. John’s. Her topics of interest include culture, community and immigration.