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CDL from Saudi Arabia

Mahde Abusaleh, a valedictorian at Crater Renaissance Academy, had to finish his senior year from Saudi Arabia after his temporary visa expired. (Submitted photo)
Crater High valedictorian unfazed by senior-year move to Middle East

Mahde Abusaleh doesn’t want to get into specifics about the bullying he sustained as an Arabic-speaking, brown-skinned boy from Saudi Arabia who showed up about a month after the first day of school as an eighth-grader at Scenic Middle School in Central Point.

Things happened, names were called, disgusting words fired from point-blank range. Intention: pain. And that was only part of what made Abusaleh’s first year in the United States – what he now calls the most difficult of his life – virtually intolerable. Also weighing heavily on him were the deaths of his 10-year-old nephew and grandma, and a language barrier that for roughly a year proved impenetrable.

“I was excited to see the school,” he said, “but at the same time not being able to say what I want to say, it was just like the feeling of being in jail technically. You’re just locked. You cannot speak your thoughts. I didn’t even have friends the entire year.”

But Abusaleh endured. An English language development teacher at Scenic helped him get a grasp of the language, as did his father, Kadhem Abusaleh, who was fluent in English and had been a professor at Oregon State University.

By his senior year at Crater Renaissance Academy, Abusaleh was cruising down the home stretch, his longtime personal goal of valedictorian so close he could taste it. And that’s when he found out that his temporary visa was about to expire and that he would have to finish high school in Saudi Arabia.

So three months ago, Abusaleh relocated 7,800 miles away back to the Middle East, where he shares a home with his mom, dad and two of his four brothers. The change in scenery had zero impact on his vision for the future, however, and since Central Point School District — like every district in the state — is required to provide an online learning option to its students, Abusaleh simply picked up where he left off, employing perhaps the most distant example of Oregon’s Comprehensive Distance Learning.

On Thursday, June 10, Abusaleh’s high school education journey from Saudi Arabia to Central Point and back again comes to an end with an unconventional sendoff typical of this bizzarro school year: he’ll unfold his laptop, go to cra.district6.org and watch via livestream video his co-valedictorian Aubrey Welburn read both their speeches to a crowd at Dutch Meyer Stadium. In Central Point, the ceremony will begin at 8 p.m. that Thursday; in Saudi Arabia it’ll be 6 a.m. Friday.

His plans for graduation day? “I’ll probably just watch my speech,” he said.

Abusaleh is neither surprised by his accomplishments – 4.18 GPA, National Honor Society — nor particularly impressed by the conditions under which he pulled them off. His standards were high from the moment he entered CRA, despite the fact that he would be learning everything in his second language.

CRA English language development teacher Sylvia Williamson says it was clear to her from the first day she met him that Abusaleh was special.

“He really, really took charge of his curriculum, picking out classes and picking out teachers, and so many teachers know him,” Williamson said. “He came here his freshman year with an incredible amount of courage and enthusiasm.”

And motivation. Williamson’s first impression of Abusaleh was that of a boy completely and wholeheartedly committed to acing every class he took in order to finish with the top GPA, quite a goal considering he still had a lot to learn about the English language when he arrived at CRA. The laser focus with which he attacked that goal, Williamson said, was something to behold, but it also became clear that there was more to Abusaleh than that.

“So the main thing I noticed was his drive,” she said. “And then just his enthusiasm. It was that goal, that drive mixed with this wonderment and this curiosity and this joy of learning. And also his politeness. Just how incredibly polite and kind he is. When he asks you, ‘How are you today?’, he really is meaning, ‘How are you today?’ He really means it. He’s so sincere. It’s an awesome mix of that ambition with so much humility.”

His experience here, including that rocky start at Scenic, likely had something to do with that. Abusaleh refers only in broad terms to the abuse he went through that first lonely school year. He doesn’t think of himself as a victim, and while being interviewed for this story even his most vague descriptions of his torment were quickly followed by a request to please, no, don’t put that in, or that other thing. Instead, he prefers to remember those who helped him succeed, the ELD teacher who took him under her wing, the faculty members who helped fend off the bullies and the classmates who eventually warmed up to him, some of whom he now counts among his best friends.

But that first year was tough and mostly friendless. Even if another student had something in common with him, Abusaleh says, it didn’t matter because they couldn’t talk to each other about it. So every lunch break, his dad would swing by the school so they could eat together. And talk, of course. Kadhem Abusaleh, who holds a doctorate in education foundations from Oregon State University, also helped his son with school work.

“He spent a lot of time helping me understand everything, class wise, homework wise,” Abusaleh said of his dad.

But Abusaleh said the person most responsible for his eventual grasp of the English language was Holly Campbell, a former ELD teacher at Scenic who has since retired.

“She was the main person who taught me real English,” Abusaleh said. “She even helped me with other classes, too. That’s why I appreciate her a lot, because she was the first person who actually spent time in school just helping me.”

Once Abusaleh became fluent in English and the “social language,” Williamson said, he had no trouble making friends at CRA. He’s so friendly, so outgoing he quickly became a popular student. Which only made the move that much more difficult.

Abusaleh said he still keeps in touch with a few of his friends from Central Point, one regularly. His life in Saudi Arabia resembles the COVID-19 bunker experience much more than the active social life of a typical teen. That can hardly be avoided. For one, he couldn’t afford to let his grades slip if he wanted to be a valedictorian. Also, the 10-hour time difference has turned him into a vampire.

Of course, high school students from coast to coast have become accustomed to sitting in front of a screen for hours on end, but few have experience the joy of firing up a live history class on Zoom at 11:30 p.m. That was Abusaleh’s latest-starting class, and it ran until 12:50 a.m.

“It’s tough, it’s really tough,” he said, snickering at the thought of fighting sleep during those midnight lectures. “I sometimes have to share my room with my brothers, too, so I just have to take my laptop and go outside … and put my headset on because I don’t want the noise to get out, and just sitting there in front of the screen being tired. I’m like, I want to sleep but I have to be here.”

But he won’t be there for long if everything goes according to plan. With one major goal already accomplished, Abusaleh hardly has time to enjoy his underdog victory before moving on to his next one: Oregon State University, where he plans to double major in nuclear engineering and marine biology. To get there, he’ll have to get there. That means a critical interview at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

That interview will take place the same day of graduation. So while most of his classmates close one chapter of their lives and celebrate the dawn of the next, Abusaleh will be asking for a green card and a chance to continue his education.

It’ll be the most important meeting of his young life, but if Abusaleh is worried about it he’s doing a good job hiding it.

“I think I’m set.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com