Published Mar. 26, 2014
By Ty Beaver, Tri-City Herald
Like many Columbia Basin College students, Amjad al-Sharkarji and Shwe Zin have high expectations for their future.
19-year-old Amjad wants to become an electrical engineer and is looking
at attending Washington State University Tri-Cities or a university in
Shwe, 18, is a Southridge High School senior in the Running Start program and plans to become a pediatrician.
have been selected as the college's All-USA Academic All Stars for the
2013-14 school year. They'll head to South Puget Sound Community College
in Olympia today to be honored at a banquet. Each will receive a $2,500
scholarship from Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society that organizes the
"They both are totally unabashed," said Terry Marie
Fleischman, adviser to the honor society's CBC chapter and adjunct
faculty member. "The sky's the limit."
But knowing how Shwe and
Amjad and their families fled political oppression to seek a better life
in the U.S., arrived in the Tri-Cities with very little and worked hard
to establish themselves makes their success and goals that much
grander, the students and others said.
"It's crazy to think I'm going to be a doctor," Shwe said. "I grew up in a hut. I played in the dirt."
family came to the U.S. in 2005 from Thailand where they'd been living
in a refugee camp. They fled their homeland of Burma because Shwe's
father was involved in a student anti-government group, she said. He
died after the family's arrival in Thailand and her mother remarried.
Shwe was 9 when the family came to the U.S.
"I just remember being scared," she said of arriving at a California airport where there was no translator available.
father, an Iraqi, fled his home country for Syria in the late 1980s and
started his family there. The Syrian government wouldn't recognize his
dad's engineering degree earned at an Iraqi university and wouldn't
grant him or his children citizenship, he said. That prompted the family
to seek political asylum in the U.S. in 2000 when Amjad was 4.
"I didn't know much when we first came here," he said.
arrival in the Tri-Cities, Shwe's mother worked as a housemaid and her
stepfather biked to his job at Walmart each day because they didn't have
a car. Amjad's father couldn't get his academic transcripts so he first
worked as a janitor at Energy Northwest. He is now a mechanical
The young immigrants didn't speak English and Shwe spent her initial grade school years in a transitional classroom.
"I remember being amazed," Shwe said. "It was like a movie. Everyone had their own desk."
and Shwe said when their families arrived in the Tri-Cities, there
wasn't a strong cultural community to support them. And after the 9/11
terrorist attacks, Amjad said his family faced some prejudice because of
their Middle Eastern heritage.
"There weren't a lot of Muslims here when we arrived," he said.
challenges didn't hold the students back, though. Amjad said his
parents pushed him to do well in school and that was reinforced by
seeing his father take classes at CBC to become a draughtsman. He
graduated from Chiawana High School last year where he was in Running
Start and enrolled at CBC to finish two associate degrees.
Shwe said her parents received the equivalent of a sixth-grade education in Burma but they also stressed academic achievement.
"My biggest motivation is to make my parents proud," she said.
About 20 students applied for the award this year, said CBC spokesman Frank Murray.
Phi Theta Kappa organizes the contest, non-society members are eligible
but all must meet specific criteria, such as having at least a 3.5
grade-point average, be enrolled in school and on track to earn an
CBC President Rich Cummins selects the college's two winners, who are now eligible for a national award.
has gotten to know the students since becoming the Phi Theta Kappa
adviser in the fall, she said. Amjad is active in honor society,
coordinating quarterly "study days" on campus so students can meet with
their professors ahead of finals and has worked to set up a knowledge
bowl competition on CBC's Pasco campus.
Shwe hasn't been as
involved but only because she has family commitments and is also
involved in activities at Southridge High, where she's captain of the
Both students have impressive academic resumes.
Amjad wants to use the engineering degree he intends to earn to better
the world through technology, while Shwe wants return to her native
Burma to treat children as doctor.
"They are totally unscathed by
what they had to go through," Fleischman said. "Those are the skill sets
that are going to take our country into the future and make the globe a
Despite the circumstances that brought them here,
Amjad and Shwe said they view the Tri-Cities as home, with Shwe adding
that her childhood in Burma and Thailand "feels like a different
Their success hasn't come easily, they said, but that's maybe part of the point, they said.
"If there's something you want, there's a way to get it," Shwe said.
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