Libyan student defies odds to return to Hempfield host mom, U.S. classrooms
Whether Sanad Saad would spend his senior year at an American high school ultimately came down to a three-hour visit to a courier office in Dunningsville.
Sanad’s host mother, Dar Frederickson, 68, of Hempfield, was trying to send important papers to his home country of Libya this summer and was at her wit’s end.
“We almost gave up after five tries, but they finally got a label that printed,” she said.
Although courier service DHL considers Libya a “high risk” country and could not guarantee delivery, it successfully delivered the papers to the capital of Tripoli, allowing Sanad to apply for an F-1 student visa and return to the United States.
“I feel he was meant to return,” Frederickson said. “No one gave us any hope.”
Sanad, 17, who spent his junior year at Hempfield Area High School, returned to Libya in June only to be confronted with the dilemma of staying in his war-torn homeland or finishing high school in America. Within two weeks of being reunited with his family in Tripoli, he knew he had to come back.
“It didn’t look like it was going to get any better,” Sanad said. “I wanted to stay — all my friends and family are there. It just wasn’t the best idea.”
Many schools in Tripoli have been damaged in the years of fighting that followed the 2011 death of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, so there was no guarantee Sanad would be able to graduate on time.
Sanad and his family moved to a “safer” part of Tripoli but didn’t feel any safer. “No matter how far you’d go, you’d hear gunshots, rockets and missiles,” he said. “A lot of times, I couldn’t sleep at night.”
Sanad contacted Frederickson and got his parents’ approval to return to the United States. He scheduled an interview for an F-1 student visa at the U.S. embassy in Tunis, Tunisia. The interview was scheduled for Sept. 7.
To obtain the student visa, Sanad needed a promise from a school to admit him and proof of a host family that was willing to pay his expenses. Frederickson was able to get that promise from Greensburg Central Catholic High School.
Working with guidance counselor Carla Burke, the school’s international student coordinator, Frederickson was able to obtain an I-20 certificate of eligibility of non-immigrant student status and a letter of admission.
Frederickson sent the papers to Sanad via DHL and crossed her fingers that they’d arrive. Sanad’s father signed for the package and accompanied him to the Tunis embassy. They waited 24 hours at the Tunisia-Libya border and had to walk part of the way before taking a taxi to the embassy.
“I was surprised when they said OK to me,” Sanad said. “Everyone I told was surprised because most Libyans are not able to get a visa.”
Sanad returned to Tunis several days later to pick up the visa and then prepared for a Sept. 17 flight. He said goodbye to his parents, both of them college professors in Tripoli, and four siblings.
“It was hard leaving, but it was the best choice,” he said.
Sanad arrived in time to start classes at Greensburg Central Catholic on Sept. 19 — about a month after the school year started.
“It’s been a long journey,” Burke said. “It’s wonderful that we get an opportunity to give someone like Sanad the ability to graduate.”
A devout Muslim, Sanad said he likes the Catholic school so far and keeps a respectful silence when Christian prayers are said. He said he has not sought any religious accommodations over diet or Muslim prayer times. He waits until he gets home to say his prayers.
“It’s different. I respect their beliefs,” he said. “I’m going to practice my religion even though the people around me are Catholic.”
Burke said the school has sought to be accommodating to Sanad. “I would say he is respectful and we are respectful,” she said.
“He’s a delight. Now that he’s here with us, we’re thankful we were able to give him this opportunity,” she said.
Sanad has been able to contribute to William Merchant’s World Religions class by sharing information about Islam, she said.
Burke said international students like Sanad enrich the educational experience at Greensburg Central Catholic. This year, the school also has students from Belarus, Russia, South Korea and Italy.
“Since I started (as coordinator in 2007), I know I have had at least three international students every single year. Some years, we’ve had as many as 10,” she said. “This is a program that is dear to my heart. Offering education to international students gives Central such an opportunity culturally to experience things that our students otherwise wouldn’t have.”
While Sanad has made new friends at GCC, he also hangs out with old friends from Hempfield. He stays in touch with his family once a week through a messenger app. His student visa expires at the end of the school year.
Frederickson said she’s not sorry she assumed responsibility for Sanad’s return. Although she’s been hosting exchange students since 1982, this is the first time she has endeavored to bring someone back.
“In my heart, God wanted this to happen,” she said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .