Martina Samoel

Martina Samoel is originally from Egypt and studies biology at JMU. 

For one JMU student, America was a distant land of education and jobs that could save her family from its no longer happy home, which was in the throes of a bloody revolution that rocked the world.

“Streets were not as safe as they used to be; it was a good time to leave,” Martina Samoel, a freshman biology major from Al Minya, Egypt, said. “We moved to Richmond, Virginia, in October of 2011 ... on January 25 of that year my country had the revolution.”

In 2010, her mom won the Diversity Visa Program, or ‘Green Card Lottery,’ put on by the U.S. State Department in accordance with the Immigration Act of 1990. The lottery is available only to countries that have a low number of immigrants to the U.S. The reward is a permanent residency visa for the winner and immediate family.

“After we found out that we won, we went for medical exams and then interviews at the U.S. embassy,” Samoel said. “We were then told we had six months to leave, and that was it. Once you are approved, they tell you nothing.”

Samoel, her parents and her younger brother, stumbled upon Richmond through another Egyptian friend who had moved to the area earlier. Despite having their Richmond friend, America was still a frightening and new place.

“I remember it just being silent and dark, so dark that I couldn’t see when we got to America, not like Egypt at night at all,” Samoel said. “We all went out for a walk the next morning and just saw trees and houses, no shops or life like in Egypt — it was scary here.”

Even though the revolution made Egypt less safe, it was still her home.

“I love my friends and family from there — it was very hard to just leave people that I’ve known all my life,” she said. “When we left I was almost 17, so it’s not like moving when you’re a child and you can adapt to the new place.”

The first year in America was particularly difficult.

“The worst thing is I didn’t want to make any friends because I thought it would make me forget the friends I loved in Egypt, the friendships that I wanted to last forever,” Samoel said. “I didn’t get involved in social clubs or sports when I first came here.”

Language was another hurdle she faced right out of the gate.

“We spoke Arabic in the house,” Samoel said. “When I first started speaking English, I had more of a British accent instead of an American one. People here couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them.”

Burdened by cultural and verbal isolation, she set a specific goal when she got to James River High School in Midlothian, Virginia.

“I spent all of my time studying, I wanted to do really well academically,” Samoel said. “Since I came in as a sophomore, I wanted to graduate high school in three years and be in good shape for college.”

Upon arrival to the American public school system, she was placed in the ESL (English as a second language) program. She started to pick up more English just from hearing it around school.

In her last two years of high school, she joined National Beta Club and National Honor Society, as well as the DoSomething community service organization. While those clubs helped her integrate more into the student body, she also had some academic changes.

“I was in higher level classes with American students; I was happier,” she said. “I got really good grades and my GPA went to 4.2.”

She received awards at her high school’s award day, and was always on the Distinguished Dean’s list. She was known in her high school for being a hardworking individual who held her own unique path to success.

“I understood that she was really motivated to do everything she could to get admitted to college, but I never felt like she was the kid who was doing whatever she had to do to get an A,” Stuart Nabors, Samoel’s high school English teacher, said. “She wasn’t measuring a rubric to determine how to get the best grade, or making assumptions about me as the instructor to tell me what she thought I wanted to hear — she wrote authentically.”

Nabors said that he could see that she actually came to school to learn, but he was also struck by her kind heart.

“She would worry about me, about the stress she speculated that I endured with some characters in my class, about the disorder on my desk that she could only imagine was driving me nuts, about the well-being of my wife and kids,” Nabors said. “She was the one who had to move from Egypt ... she was the one who had to master a new language … she was the one living in two worlds and making sense of a new culture. And she was the one concerned about me and my family? That’s Martina.”

While Nabors emphasized Samoel’s determinism leading to her success, she said that all of her accomplishments are thanks to Jesus. Religion plays a significant role in her life.

“Martina is really dedicated to her faith,” Callie Eastin, a freshman interdisciplinary liberal studies major and a member of Samoel’s InterVarsity small group, said.

That faith and dedication paid off, as her prayers were answered again when more of her family moved to America.

“Six months after we came here, my mom’s sister won the lottery, which was so cool, and she moved in down the street,” Samoel said. “She made life so much better since I have relatives to visit now.”

Divine intervention must run in the family, because more of her family will be here soon.

“My mom’s other sister and her family are coming to Richmond in April because her husband won the lottery too,” she said. “Three sisters all getting to come to America through the lottery is truly a miracle, something that no one had ever heard of before.” 

While Samoel escaped a country fissured by a revolution and violence, her arrival to America was anything but an easy transition.  But, after being at JMU for a semester, Samoel hopes to be a doctor once she completes what she describes as “a very long period of school.”

Contact Mike Dolzer at dolzermj@dukes.jmu.edu.