Nora Elshiekh came home from her high school in Egypt one day in March 2013, the junior caught up in thoughts of homework and friends and plans for her senior year.
Then the American teenager found the life she had built in her new country pulled out from under her. Within five days, Nora and her family boarded a plane and left Egypt behind, returning to a country where she felt like a stranger.
Now preparing to graduate from Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Nora still has trouble believing how quickly her life changed.
Nora had moved to the African country before her freshman year of high school in 2010. Though she and her siblings were born and raised in the United States, her parents wanted to see their children connect with their Egyptian heritage.
Nora, her mother and her younger brother and sister lived in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city. Her father stayed behind in America for work, but visited his family every few months.
Even with growing civil unrest throughout Egypt, Nora adjusted to her new country by learning the ins and outs of being a high school student.
“It was weird,” Nora said. “As a freshman, I was more focused on my friends, but the whole world was looking at Egypt.”
A revolution broke out on Jan. 25, 2011, in the middle of her freshman year. She said the hardest part of the uprising for her was that it canceled school for two months, breaking the routine she had built.
Once school started again, the continuing protests and government turmoil just became part of the background of her life.
Then it all fell apart with her father’s visit in March 2013.
“As he was taking my younger sister and brother home from school, he saw a shooting right in front of his own eyes,” Nora said.
Suddenly, the violence in Egypt hit closer to home. Nora’s parents decided to bring their family back to the United States. Upon his return to the U.S., her father called them and told them he had made plane reservations for just five days later.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Nora said. “I was in the middle of high school. My friends and I were already planning what we were going to do for graduation.”
In a whirlwind, her family packed all their belongings and said goodbye to the family and friends they were leaving in Egypt and set off for Virginia, leaving behind one Alexandria for another.
Though Nora was used to moving around, having jumped from from Indiana to New York to Virginia and several more states in between before leaving for Egypt, the adjustment to life in America was difficult. She had to relearn how to be a high school student. At her school in Egypt, class was selection limited, and extracurricular activities were nonexistent.
Slowly, Nora found her way, joining the track team and student government. Throwing herself into the planning of Mount Vernon’s annual Multicultural Day for this school year also proved a breakthrough.
“When I found out about it, I knew I wanted to help out,” Nora said. “They always have the countries representing the culture of the students, so I wanted to make sure Egypt was represented.”
The celebration of world cultures took place in December, just before winter break. In the months leading up to it, Nora reached out to other students to bring in more African cultures and helped expand the program offerings.
She said even after the event ended, she still enjoys helping people learn more about her culture because it keeps her connection to Egypt alive.
“People ask me about what Egypt was like, and about our language, the food we eat and what we do,” Nora said. “Really, they’re just curious.”
Now, Nora navigates the hallways of Mount Vernon like a pro, stopping to talk with friends and teachers as she prepares for graduation next week. In the fall, she will head to Northern Virginia Community College’s Pathway to Baccalaureate program, where she plans to prepare for a dietetics and nutrition program at a four-year college.
“This is not the graduation I expected just last year,” Nora said. “But now that it’s here, I’m going to enjoy it.”