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Becoming an Astronaut: The dream of a refugee youth

After five long years of waiting and a daunting eleven-hour flight halfway around the world, a young woman’s life was about to change. Maryam, 14 years old, a refugee from Iran landed in the US in December of 2016. Once off the plane, she was immediately captivated by how different everyone looked as she walked through the airport terminal to meet her welcome team from IRC. She continued to be amazed by the diversity of people, women’s fashion and the fact that women were working in the airport.

Growing up in Iran, she only knew what she saw in her town and faced scrutiny for being of Afghan descent and a woman. Because of this, Maryam started to realize this wasn’t the life she wanted for herself and she did not want the life planned for women in her home country. Although, neither of her parents made it past the eighth grade, they wanted more for their only daughter, so they pushed education and achievement, building the foundation of a driving force within Maryam. It was then that Maryam’s life began to change.

In 2012, at the peak of a resuming conflict, the local police came to her father’s job at the market, told him he could not return to work and threatened that the family needed to leave. The family immediately packed up all they knew and fled to Konya, Turkey the nearest refugee camp, where they awaited refugee status by UNHCR.

In Turkey, Maryam finally started to feel safe again. Maryam was able to explore the city without fear of retribution. She saw women holding jobs and wearing less traditional clothing, and was able to freely attend a co-ed school for the first time. On her first trip to the cinema in Konya, Maryam saw a movie about Neil Armstrong and a new dream was born – to work for NASA. She felt that the next logical step was to explore space, something she never imagined was possible in Iran but knew was more that possible in the US.

A few months later, her family received notice that they were finally coming to Maryland. Since her arrival in the US, Maryam has taken the initiative by teaching herself English, dedicating herself to school and fighting to follow her ultimate dream of traveling the world and beyond.

Reflecting back, Maryam recalls not being scared even though she didn’t know the English language. She was able to walk through her new school with her head held high full of confidence. She has quickly made new American friends and found her comfort zone in her math classes. Even when school let out for summer, Maryam was not done learning and joined the youth summer program hosted by the International Rescue Committee in Silver Spring.

The IRC’s youth summer program is a high school aged program that focuses on building a framework of social and emotional wellbeing. The youth spend the summer learning English, integrating into the community and exploring different facets of American life in a safe space. Youth have the ability to befriend other teens from all over the world and they were able to see that no matter where they come from, they all share experiences. In this summer program, Maryam has begun blossoming into an amazing young woman, hungry to absorb everything possible and achieving each and every task she sets her mind to.