Former refugee from Iraq wins national science competition

a young man with his parents - science competition

Yeyha Albakri’s family fled Iraq when he was a child. He has overcome many obstacles to win a prestigious science competition and is now looking forward to going to college.

Yehya Albakri was two years old when his family of four fled to Jordan. It was 2005, and the tense political situation in his home country of Iraq had quickly escalated into an armed conflict. The family lived in a small apartment next to Yeyha’s cousins, who he was very close to. Both families applied for asylum but unfortunately, only Yeyha’s family was accepted into the United States.

They made the painful decision to leave their home and loved ones and start over.

The USA was strange and scary for young Yehya. He did not know the language and felt isolated at school. He slowly began to realize how different the USA was from Iraq and did all he could to learn the language and fit in with his classmates. He found that the easiest way to cope was to behave differently depending on who he was spending time with. He remained very close to his family and culture while learning how to exist in his new surroundings.

Yehya’s father was always someone who liked to work with his hands and fix things around the house. He bought Yehya a Meccano kit, thinking that his son might have the same inclinations. The kit was a construction system that Yeyha was immediately enamored with. He made a small car and soon was disassembling and re-assembling his toys just to learn how they worked. By summer of his freshman year, he had graduated to making a small fridge and skateboard.

In the 10th grade, he built a 3D printer and replaced the family’s broken kettle handle with one he had printed himself.

By junior year, Yehya had joined Science Olympiad and was competing in STEM competitions. With his partner, he constructed a hovercraft which transported 16 rolls of pennies. He also decided to enter the most ambitious science competition, called Mission Possible. The goal was to construct a device that would perform 12 independent tasks, including expanding gas, triggering levers, and using a pulley system to lift weights.

The 400-plus hours of connecting hundreds of wires and parts paid off. Yehya learned that his school’s team had won the state science competition and were moving on the national Science Olympiad competition.

Reality struck when Yehya realized that he was going to be competing against the most skilled students in the country. Upon testing his machine, he decided it was not the best he could do. For the second time in his life, he started over completely. The Nationals Competition was in Colorado, so Yehya took into consideration how the device would perform in a high-altitude setting. The new machine had issues and did not perform one of the tasks it needed to. Yehya was bracing for defeat and was stunned when he won first place.

His parents weren’t planning on coming but decided last minute to get an overnight flight to surprise him. They were there when their son experienced one of the best days of his life.

Yehya is deeply grateful for the opportunities that his life in the USA has afforded him. When he talks to his cousin in Iraq, he hears the frustration that comes with being a young, intelligent person who may not have the chance to attend college. Yehya, on the other hand, is fortunate enough to be able to apply to colleges such as UC Berkeley and Stanford. His future is bright and he hopes to do all he can to make his parents proud.

He wants one day to pay forward the luck and good fortune he received when his family got the chance to start over.

Refugees shaking hands

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About Lana_R
Lana Radosavljevic is the US Programs Director of the Refugee Center Online and a former refugee from Bosnia and Hercegovina.