‘Life isn’t a given, it’s a gift’: Read this Syrian-Canadian teen’s valedictorian address

Sham Al Mukdad: “The uncertainty, the fear of illness, of death, has made us appreciate how it can all be taken away, so swiftly, and without reason. I already know this, as a refugee.”

Sham Al Mukdad stands in front of balloons spelling out CTA 2020, wearing a graduation cap and gown

(Courtesy of Sham Al Mukdad/Mary Tran @maiicraft)

Sham Al Mukdad grew up in Daraa, Syria and fled the war-torn country to Turkey in 2014. Sham, her parents, and two sisters lived there for two years before arriving in Canada as refugees. Sham was 14 years old. She started high school at Central Toronto Academy barely speaking English. In 2020, Sham graduated as valedictorian with a near-100 per cent average—with an A+ in her Grade 12 English class. She is a Loran Scholars semi-finalist and has received over 10 awards and scholarships during her four years in Canada. She kindly shared her valedictorian address with us to publish—because we can all use some good news right now.

Good evening, everyone: Ms. Kurman, Mr. Seabrook, and our most honoured guests—the proud parents, families, and friends that are joining us tonight to celebrate this milestone with us. A special welcome also to my dearest teachers and my fellow graduates. My name is Sham Al Mukdad, and I am so honoured to represent the class of 2020, as your valedictorian.

Our graduation year was definitely not what we imagined it would be. We didn’t get prom, sports playoffs, Math contests, or talent shows. Most painfully, we didn’t get the chance to walk down the aisle together, to see our whole CTA community smiling in the audience. We didn’t get the chance to hug, and say a proper goodbye. COVID robbed us of that. But it didn’t defeat us. We fought back, continued our learning, and we succeeded. And thanks to technology, here we are in a virtual ‘circle of love.’ It might not be face to face, but we can still celebrate. We have made so many beautiful memories over the years, and even though the last semester was disrupted, it taught us many valuable lessons. Our experience of the pandemic will inspire us to make the world more fair, more just, safer. Out of the blue, we were put on ‘pause,’ stuck in our homes struggling with remote learning platforms. But we were also given the gift of time—to appreciate family, and to reflect on the fragile, interconnected way the world works; the supply chain that gives us food; who is most vulnerable; what systems need more funding to make our society stronger as we slowly recover. The uncertainty, the fear of illness, of death, has made us appreciate how it can all be taken away, so swiftly, and without reason. (I already know this, as a refugee.)

In 2011, war broke out in Syria, my home country. I lived in a city called Daraa, exactly where the revolution started, so it was the most dangerous place to be. For weeks we had no electricity, we had to ration food and water, and we weren’t able to communicate with anyone. We heard bombing non-stop at very close distances; every single person in the city was expecting to die at any minute. But we hung on, and we survived. Miraculously. This taught me that life isn’t a ‘given’; it’s more of a gift, and we need to make the most of it.

In 2012, my parents made the tough decision to move to a safer town; the town that my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in. And that was the last time that I saw my grandfather on my mom’s side. Ever. Being in the town taught me how even the little details count: the good morning I used to say before heading to school and the kisses on their cheeks; the smell of coffee mixed with cardamom; the beautiful olive, lemon and walnut trees. Like the writings I carved onto their branches, all these precious childhood memories will forever be carved into my soul.

We cannot stop time from passing. Things will change or disappear whether we like it or not. So we must savour special moments with our loved ones. Yes, as young graduates, we are dreaming and making plans for the future, but those goals shouldn’t take our sight away from enjoying a good dinner with family, a good talk with elders, joking around with friends. Some day, either they or you will leave. What will stay are the good conversations, the smiles, the feelings.

In 2016, my family secured refuge in Canada, and we were forced to begin all over again in a new country. However, in Canada, we met a few of the kindest people, that my family and I owe a huge thanks to. It would be difficult to list all of their names, but these people were our family when we knew no one here, and they made Canada feel like home. Thank you for everything.

Now, I still remember the first day I entered CTA four years ago. I spoke almost no English, and was very confused and lost. All I knew was that I needed to succeed. There was no other choice. Over the years, I learned that what seems impossible can be achieved with effort and determination. I was very quiet and shy, but I found that no one was going to help me if I didn’t ask for help. So despite my very shaky vocabulary, I started asking more and more questions. I remember the courage it took. Once, in Mr. Armstrong’s Grade 10 History, I was trying to make a comment, but then realized I had to pronounce a word that I had never said out loud before. Red-faced, I stumbled on it, trying again and again, correcting myself, with 28 people in the room staring at me and waiting for me to, just, finish. But, guess what? “No risk; no reward.” I may have entered this school as a terrified ESL teen, but I am leaving it as a confident bilingual woman, one who earned an A+ in Grade 12 English.

I am very grateful for all of the knowledge and skills that I’ve acquired at CTA, but school is so much more than that. Our teachers deserve thanks not just for covering the curriculum, but also for all the little life lessons and advice along the way. From Ms. Millar’s motivational talks, I learned that obsessive competitiveness may get you all the marks in the world, but it should never come at the price of your mental health and friendships. She also helped me see that I will never be everyone’s favourite, but that’s what makes me human. Mr. Atkins taught me that, indeed, I sometimes do have to take ‘no’ as an answer. (Sorry about all the Math tests I badgered you to mark immediately.) He helped me to learn patience, the art of waiting. Mr. Kawai, Mr. Lees, and Mr. Abtan: thanks for all the extra time you took just chatting, making me feel like school was my second home. I am lucky to say that CTA teachers are more like friends; you gave so many of us love and support that we didn’t even have to ask for.

A big thank you to Ms. Martin for helping me edit this speech and always sticking by my side whenever I needed her.

And thank you to all the caring adults that make up the CTA family: admin, the guidance department, the secretaries, the social workers, the custodians, our security team. Even when everything went sideways, you were still there for us. You helped us stay focused, and you cared. You made sure that we had every chance to succeed.

Of course, the biggest, warmest shoutout goes to our parents. Whether they are here in Canada, or back home in another country, it is their effort, love, and inspiration that helped us to follow our dreams. To my parents—Baba Adnan, and Mama Taghrid: my deepest gratitude. I could not list half the things you have done for me. Thank you for believing in me and for making me believe in myself. For loving me unconditionally. And thank you for blessing me with the smartest, prettiest, and funniest sisters on planet earth, Sara, and Elisar. Deep thanks to all the moms and dads. We hope you feel proud of us today, for our success is also yours.

In closing, I would like to congratulate all the grads of 2020, my friends and classmates. All the hard work you put into your years here has paid off. You did it! At CTA, I met so many amazing people with the warmest hearts and sweetest personalities. I know you will make this world a better place, and hopefully our paths will cross once again. Until then, I wish you endless happiness and continued success.

Graduating is such a bittersweet feeling. But as Helen Keller once wrote: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love becomes a part of us.”

We will always be a part of this school, of each other. Thank you so much.