As a little girl growing up in Baghdad, Maryam Abdullah marveled at the sight of airplanes soaring across the sky.

She never imagined that she would one day fly to a new home in the United States or that she could ever hope to get a job at NASA.

Abdullah was 8 years old when her father, Habiq, was killed during the Iraq war, an event that sent her life into an understandable tailspin.

“He used to help me study. He always told me education was important,” Abdullah said. “But after he died, we had to move a lot, and I couldn’t keep up in school. Eventually I dropped out.”

Abdullah came to the United States when she was 12 years old, first settling in Georgia. “Yes” and “no” were the only English words she knew. She tried to fit in at school, but she felt “invisible.”

Her mother, Salwa Alnadiry, had several siblings living in Portland, so they moved here when Abdullah was in eighth grade. She started attending King Middle School, where she blossomed in classes for students who were learning to speak English. She saw other students from immigrant families were succeeding and knew that she could, too.

“It changed a lot of what I thought,” Abdullah said. “I felt like nothing was impossible.”

She continued taking classes for English language learners at Portland High School but quickly advanced. By her senior year, she was taking three Advanced Placement courses. She became a member and leader of several groups that promote civil rights and global understanding, and she developed into a talented writer, artist and photographer.

Abdullah has a part-time job and is working on a graphic novel based on her life. It’s about a girl who moves to a new country and must adapt to a new culture and make good decisions for her future while maintaining respect for home, faith and family.

“It’s about what a Muslim girl can do,” Abdullah said. She credits her mother with being supportive and understanding and not holding her back from achieving her dreams.

Abdullah has a full scholarship to attend the University of Southern Maine, where she plans to study mechanical and electrical engineering.

“I’ve always wanted to build things to help people,” she said. “I want to work for NASA.”

Because nothing is impossible.

– By Kelley Bouchard