After escape from terror in Iraq as a teenager, Maysaa Kalei earns degree at UNO

“This is where my future began”
6 News spoke with one UNO graduate and the family who celebrated with her, and their unique representation of the American Dream.
Published: May. 19, 2023 at 10:37 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Hers is an American success story, one that could mark any generation of U.S. history: a family escaping the horrors of war into a world of uncertainty.

“The sense of ‘nothing is impossible’ is highly activated with me. Everything is possible, you just never know.”

Maysaa Kalei’s American story began when her childhood story in Sinjar, Iraq, ended.

It was August of 2014, and she was a senior in high school when ISIS, the Islamic State, launched a campaign of terror including enslavement and genocide on the Yazidi population. Tens of thousands died. Thousands escaped, including her family. After two difficult years trying to find a permanent home, the family landed in Lincoln, Nebraska. At Lincoln North Star High School, Maysaa had to learn a new language and a new culture. She started her high school studies over, and upon graduation was a Buffett Scholar, earning entry into UNO.

Almost nine years after her family fled Iraq, she walked at graduation from the University of Nebraska Omaha where she will receive a degree in business.

“The more that you go through the more that you struggle the more that you really understand,” she said. “You have a more open mind and you understand emotions and you understand about life... That’s really how I kind of combine my feelings about all the things that I went through back then until today and I just like feel I kind of use them as a strength really to keep on going today and create something for tomorrow.”

Maysaa is an American citizen now, and her success is inspiring, not just to her family.

“We really never expected to have a day like this,” her mother Laila Aldadhi said, through Maysaa’s translation. “So I can’t really describe my feelings because having all of us here celebrating this moment is a really huge deal after all the things that we went through.”

Her older brother Saad agreed.

“She’s my sister and I love her,” he said. “Makes me proud of her (and) I hope she has a great future.”

In 2023, UNO will graduate 1,799 total students, and Maysaa is one of 489 who are first-generation college students. Her younger brother Karam is a junior at UNO.

“I remember yesterday when she graduated high school, and now today she is graduating college,” he said. “Hopefully next year it’ll be in the same place.”

Her friends, including her mentor Xin Rou Tan, who she first met through a Girl Scouts leadership program, are also inspired by Maysaa’s remarkable journey. Its a journey that Xin Rou Tan believes has only just begun.

She flew in from New York to join the celebration. The two have a special kinship as teenagers who immigrated to the U.S. as teenagers, though under different circumstances. She was uprooted from her childhood home in Malaysia to start over in Nebraska when her mother began studies at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, where Xin Rou Tan later graduated herself.

“I’ve seen her journey from when I met her in 2017 all the way to where she is now and I’ve seen the struggles she’s gone through, the ups and downs, the challenges, but she’s handled everything with grace, poise and confidence,” she said. “I just couldn’t be more proud of where she is today and honestly, she is going to make such a huge impact in the world and I just it makes me tear up thinking about that.”

Maysaa will spend several months in Japan as an internship, and has a passion for business, which she hopes will take her around the world to places she only dreamed of as a child. Still, you will never take her heart from Nebraska.

“No matter where I go anywhere in this world, Omaha was home for me and will always be,” she said. “And I will try my best to always come back as much as I can and give as much as I can because this is where it started and this is where my future began.”