PORTLAND — Every school district has its share of students who move in from somewhere else, whether it’s from a different town or different state.

But for Casco Bay High School senior Sahra Hassan, the move to Maine was much more complicated.

Hassan, 18, was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, to Somali parents. Her family moved to the U.S. when she was 6, but not initially to Maine. Instead, they moved to San Diego.

“We spent two years there, getting to know the environment,” Hassan said. She said she had a good grasp of English, and knew it better than most children in her situation.

The family moved to Maine in the summer of 2007. She was enrolled at Reiche Elementary School as a fifth-grader, and had been at a different school practically every year since coming to the U.S.

“I was supposed to go to King Middle School, but we moved to the Portland Housing Authority and were in the Riverton Park,” Hassan said. 

She ended up at Lincoln Middle School instead, and set a goal for herself: stay at that school for the rest of her middle school career. Hassan said she had to beg her parents not to move or switch schools again, and they conceded.

Hassan and her family practice Islam, which she described as a very scheduled faith. In addition to praying five times a day, she would help her mother around the house before and after school then go to night classes at a mosque to learn Arabic. This experience shaped her high school choice, she said.

“I wanted to experience things people in my situation wouldn’t have been able to,” she said, which lead her to Casco Bay High School. She said enrolling there was “a big leap of faith,” because she didn’t know anyone. She didn’t even know it was an expeditionary learning school, and only learned that acceptance into the school was based on a lottery after she was accepted.

“Being denied wasn’t even on my radar,” she said.

Now, four years later, Hassan finds herself in somewhat of a leadership role. She seeks out younger students to give them advice, such as not to sweat the small stuff. 

“I loved it when I was a freshman and could talk to the older students,” Hassan said, which she noted is probably less likely an experience at either Portland or Deering high schools.

In the fall, Hassan will attend the University of New England at Biddeford. She said although she originally wanted to be a teacher, she now wants to study biological medicine, with the goal of becoming an emergency room doctor; her dream job is to work with Doctors Without Borders.

Hassan said there wasn’t a specific moment when she decided on that course, but instead she came to recognize the disparity in medical access around the world.

“A lot of people where I come from need help,” she said. She added there are things people in developed countries take for granted, such as over-the-counter medications and simple vaccinations, that others around the world can’t access.

Hassan will be the first person in her family to graduate from high school, which she said is easily her greatest accomplishment so far. She had an older brother at CBHS who would have been the first, but he accidentally drowned in the Presumpscot River in 2011.

Hassan said his death convinced her that everyone is here for a reason.

“Whether I know that reason or not,” she said, “it will benefit me.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

Casco Bay High School senior Sahra Hassan, 18, was born in a refugee camp in Kenya. She and her family immigrated to San Diego when she was 6, and later moved to Portland. Hassan will be the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

Portland commencements

Portland’s three public high schools will hold commencement exercises next week.

• Deering High School on Wednesday, June 3, at the Cross Insurance Arena at 10:30 a.m. There are 205 students in the graduating class.

• Portland High School on Thursday, June 4, at Merrill Auditorium at 12:30 p.m. This year’s graduating class has 233 students.

• Casco Bay High School, with more than 70 seniors, on Thursday, June 4, at 6 p.m. at Merrill Auditorium.

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