BIDDEFORD — Ahmed Al Shuwaili remembers clearly the night his father sat on the roof of their home in Iraq and told him he dreamed his three children would go to college.

The next day, the 16-year-old was outside with friends when a car bomb explosion rocked the neighborhood, shattering windows and sending people running. Al Shuwaili’s father, who had worked with The Associated Press before taking a job as a driver, was behind the wheel of the car that blew up. He died 24 hours later in a rat-infested hospital.

His father’s death prompted a journey that brought Al Shuwaili, his mother and siblings to Jordan, back to Baghdad and finally to Maine. It also solidified his determination to carve out his own American dream and graduate from college.

“I always had that hope no matter what that someday I could change my family’s life to the better,” said Al Shuwaili, now 24.

Al Shuwaili will graduate from the Biddeford Adult Education program in a few weeks and is due to begin a four-year marine engineering operations program at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. The Portland resident is among a growing number of English language learners turning to the Biddeford Adult Education program to improve their English skills and earn an American high school diploma.

“We’ve had a long history of serving English language learners,” said Paulette Bonneau, director of the program, which is open to people from any community.


The program was established in the late 1800s to serve immigrants moving to the city, where textile mills provided numerous job opportunities. In the early years, the program served many Canadians who moved to Maine from Quebec. The home countries of students has changed over time, Bonneau said. Years ago, classes were popular with people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Russia. More recently, students have come from Iraq, Iran and African countries.

This year, the adult education program is serving 57 ESL – or English as a Second Language – students who come from 13 countries – including Iraq, Congo, Angola, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Russia and Lithuania – and speak 14 languages. This year’s enrollment represents a 33 percent increase over the previous school year.

The increase in the adult education program mirrors a shift in the student population at K-12 schools in Biddeford. The number of English language learners in Biddeford’s elementary, middle and high schools has doubled in the past two years as families move from outside the United States or from other areas of the state. It is the latest Maine community to see a significant increase in students who speak little or no English.

Ahmed Al Shuwaili, left, fills out a worksheet while instructor Sam Smithwick reads questions during a U.S. History and Media Literacy class at Biddeford Adult Education.

Families say they are drawn to Biddeford because they see it as a safe city with good schools and access to jobs and transportation and a community that is welcoming to new Mainers.

As more families turn to the adult education program, changes are being made to provide them with the education and skills they need, said Sam Smithwick, an ESL instructor. He says he’s seen a dramatic change in the type of students in his classes: More of them are younger and come to Maine with professional backgrounds. Smithwick said many of the students in the program need to improve their English while also getting certifications that will allow them to return to their careers.

To accommodate the growing demand for ESL classes, the program will hire two part-time instructors, which will allow for smaller and more intense classes. The program will also hold a summer session for the first time this year so learning isn’t interrupted with a long break.


Instructors and volunteers now work with students on resume building, career development and obtaining certifications. They help students learn to navigate services in the community, including public safety and banking. The program also emphasizes helping parents develop relationships with their children’s teachers and administrators and how to have a positive relationship with the schools, Bonneau said.

For Al Shuwaili, the Biddeford program provided an opportunity to earn his American high school diploma while also taking classes on topics such as U.S. history, media literacy and forensics.

“I felt like I was in the right place,” he said of finding his way to the Biddeford program. “This is where I needed to be.”


Al Shuwaili spent his early life in Baghdad with his parents, older brother and younger sister. Their house was often full of American soldiers his father met through his work with the AP. Al Shuwaili had always dreamed of living in the U.S. and loved hearing about what life was like there.

“I was always researching on the internet life in the United States,” he said.


That interaction with Americans made the family a target of threats and prompted his father to switch jobs, Al Shuwaili said. After his father died, Al Shuwaili said he and his family no longer felt safe in Iraq and, in the midst of war, it was becoming harder for the teenager to support his family. He worked at an ice cream factory after school and on the weekends, earning $200 a month. It was just enough to cover rent.

“It was so hard. I couldn’t do my homework because of work,” he said.

Six months after his father’s death, Al Shuwaili and his family applied for refugee status in the United States. Nothing happened for months, so they decided to move to Jordan in hopes that it would be easier to get to the United States. As they left Baghdad, their neighbors threw water on them to wish them good luck.

“We thought we’d spend two or three months in Jordan, then we’d be off to the United States,” Al Shuwaili said.

It didn’t turn out that way.

The family lived in a single room in Jordan and Al Shuwaili struggled to earn enough money working in restaurants to cover their expenses. They did two interviews with immigration officials, but weren’t approved to come to the U.S. Discouraged, the family decided to return to Baghdad.


“Our hope was done,” Al Shuwaili said. “Before I left, I sat on a mountain and I started crying. I said, ‘What did I do to get to this?’ My life kept going down and down.”


Conditions had not improved in Iraq, where Al Shuwaili said life was increasingly miserable and dangerous. Al Shuwaili wanted to start college, but couldn’t afford to.

One day, Al Shuwaili’s mother gave him 50 cents, enough for a soda or bag of noodles. He decided instead to buy himself 30 minutes at an internet cafe. There, he wrote a letter to U.S. immigration officials describing his desperate situation in Iraq and his desire to go to college.

A phone call a week later brought Al Shuwaili the news he’d dreamed of for his family: Their refugee visas had been approved.

“I kept jumping and jumping. That was the happiest moment of my life,” he said.


Al Shuwaili and his family arrived in New York City on Nov. 13, 2012.

“My mom always said that was a birthday gift from God to come to the United States,” he said. “When I came here, that’s when I was born.”

The family settled in Portland, where Al Shuwaili enrolled at Deering High School. At 19, he was older than most students and felt awkward and out of place. He eventually left without graduating.

He took adult education classes in Portland between shifts pushing carts at BJ’s Wholesale Club, but had to stop to help his family. Finally, after his brother was settled in Ellsworth and his sister had graduated from high school, it was time for Al Shuwaili to focus on his own education. He found his way to the Biddeford program, where he especially enjoyed a class about Maine’s maritime history that he took with Smithwick.

Just before the deadline to apply, Al Shuwaili decided to send in an application to Maine Maritime Academy. A friend had told him about the school and he knew it would allow him to pursue his goal of working as an engineer.

“As a kid, I would make boats out of paper and have them sail on a pot of water,” he said. “I always wanted to be working on a ship.”


When the acceptance letter from Maine Maritime arrived, Al Shuwaili and his family celebrated with cheers and tears. At school, he handed a binder containing the letter to Smithwick.

“He just exploded,” Smithwick said. “There was lots of fanfare with people in the program.”

With weeks to go until graduation, Al Shuwaili is focused on wrapping up his coursework and shaking away his nerves about the tradition of jumping off a ship at the end of his Maine Maritime orientation. But his thoughts often return to his father and that conversation they had on their roof in Baghdad 10 years ago.

“He’s proud of me, I know,” Al Shuwaili said. “He’s happy his son has accomplished his dream.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

Twitter: grahamgillian

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