Isra and Souelymane Adam help their sister, Ikhlas, prepare for her BSN pinning ceremony in December 2023 on campus (photo by Rockhurst University)

Three little words — “where leaders learn” — is what sealed the deal for Ikhlas Adam, ’24. There were a number of places where she could fulfill the necessary credits to complete her Bachelor of Science in nursing degree and start her career. But what those three words offered by Rockhurst University was something more.

“That was the first thing I saw, and it was amazing to me,” she said. “I just knew that this was a place I wanted to be.”

It was the case for two of her siblings, too — Isra, who is studying molecular biology in the hopes of pursuing medical school; and Souleymane, a junior peace and international studies major eyeing law school. Their perspective was shaped by an incredible experience fleeing civil war in their native Sudan, spending seven years in limbo in a refugee camp in Chad, and eventually having the chance to move to the United States. They say they are thankful for their family, for those who helped them along the way, and for the drive to succeed and give back what the experience gave them.

Ikhlas, the oldest of her family’s eleven children, remembers the family gathering what they could before an attack, and fleeing, with two siblings — including Souleymane — becoming temporarily separated in the process. The conflict in Darfur, part of a continuing dispute over control of the country between the Arab-led government and the non-Arab tribes, has left 300,000 dead and nearly 2.5 million displaced, according to the United Nations. They settled into a new reality at the Gaga Refugee Camp in neighboring Chad.

Isra said that family members would wake up at 2:00AM to fetch water for the day because their sink was shared by twelve different families. They helped tend a small farm, while the children ran across the camp to get to school on time. All that said, Isra and Ikhlas said that the camp had one advantage over their former home — safety.

“There is a trauma of running from the place you live and the only idea you have is, ‘Am I going to die or survive?’” said Ikhlas. “We didn’t think of shoes. You don’t think of what you need to eat — you can eat anything to survive as long as you’re not going to die.”

Only 2.4% of the world’s refugees will eventually be resettled, according to the non-profit organization, iACT. However, in 2014, the Adam family was offered the opportunity to leave for the United States and pursue treatment for a urological condition that Souleymane had struggled with since birth. For refugees, considerations regarding the decision to leave are complex and include the thought of leaving family and the only home they’ve known to perceptions of life in the United States. But Souleymane said their parents were both steadfast.

“Families declined because they thought they would never be able to return, or they would become different [people] or lose the ability to speak the language,” he said. “Mom sat us down and explained for us what was going to happen if we moved to the United States. She said, ‘Life in America cannot be worse than what we have already suffered. If there’s nothing else in America, there is education, and that’s enough.’”

Ikhlas, Isra and Souleymane Adam on campus in December 2023 before Ikhlas’ BSN pinning ceremony (photo by Rockhurst University)

In August 2014, the family arrived in the U.S. and moved into their new home in Northeast Kansas City, MO.

“In the morning, we expected to see a crowded street. We expected to see children playing and older people outside drinking their tea on the porch, neighbors talking to each other loudly and waving hello,” said Souleymane. “But it was very quiet. The only living thing we saw that morning was… squirrels.”

When a neighbor did emerge and greet the family, they did not know how to respond.

“We didn’t know the word, ‘Hi’,” said Ikhlas.

As time wore on, the family adapted — Ikhlas completed high school in the refugee camp, so she started working to support the family as a hotel housekeeper. Isra and Souleymane learned English while enrolled at East High School. Souleymane, with medical treatment behind him, excelled in cross country at East— a skill and passion he had picked up while running across the refugee camp. Isra, too, joined cross country, along with soccer, tennis, and the debate team.

“The hardest part for me was going to school and not knowing the language,” Isra said. “As soon as I came out of the English as a Second Language program, so many doors opened for me.”

Despite the challenges, or maybe because of them, the three siblings share a drive to make the world better. In that, they say they have found common cause with Rockhurst’s Jesuit mission. After learning English at Kansas City’s Don Bosco Center, Ikhlas earned a CNA, CMT, and an incident certification, plus an Associate’s degree in Arabic interpretation, for good measure. She said she chose Rockhurst to complete her BSN because she believes she can make a difference. Having seen what happens when health care professionals aren’t ready to meet the demands of the job, she hopes to be a leader as a nurse.

“There’s a saying in our religion — helping one person is like you help the whole world,” she said. “Harming one person is like harming the world. I want to be the one helping one person at a time.”

Souleymane has volunteered with iACT (including as a member of their Darfur United soccer club), facilitating community-led humanitarian solutions for refugees. In Summer 2023, he returned to the Gaga Refugee Camp as a volunteer, an experience he described as a sort of homecoming. While finishing his degree at Rockhurst, Souleymane helped other refugees navigate resettlement with Jewish Vocational Services.

“I see it as my future because I want to help refugees as much as I can. Not only refugees from my country, but any refugees,” he said.

Isra’s path of study, like her two siblings, grew directly from what she witnessed in the camp.

“Sometimes patients were sick, or they needed surgery, but they would have to travel really far. And some patients lost their lives on the way,” she said. “That’s something I saw a lot. And that’s why I wanted to become a surgeon.”

Ikhlas said that countless people, including many at Rockhurst, have played a part in helping her along the way. But her father remains a primary inspiration. Despite having only a seventh-grade equivalent of education, they say he instills in his children the need to pursue education to realize their dreams.

“He told me, ‘If I went to school, I would have done this’ — those are his dreams, but he had to take care of his family,” Ikhlas said. “He says if you don’t reach for your dreams, they are just wishes.”

By Tim Linn, Director of Communications, Rockhurst University