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Sixth-grader with Tanzanian roots embraces American education

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  • 'I like to read ... a lot'
  • Meet Najmah Khariri

    School: Sixth grade at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle

    Favorite book: She’s enjoying the “Pathfinder” series by Orson Scott Card, but can’t pick a favorite: “If I named all of them, this would take days.”

    Favorite movie: “Sarafina!,” which is about a South African girl who has to overcome her fears and rebels against apartheid.

    Dream job: Doctor/biomedical engineer.

    Why education is important: Without it, “you can’t do anything to help your family when they’re old.”

    Favorite (“favorite, favorite”) author: Rick Riordan.

    Most interesting school topic this year: Ancient Egyptian mythology.



Najmah Khariri, 12, loves reading so much that she averages more than two hours daily. And that’s after school.

She floored her sixth-grade social studies teacher at the start of the year. “From day one, literally the first day of school, she came in and already had a book to read,” said Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School’s Charlie Williams.

If he’d conferred with her fifth-grade teacher at Briarwood Elementary, Ashley Reynolds, he might not have been so surprised. Reynolds said during the two-week winter break, she challenged her students to a book-reading contest. Najmah won with 26 books, about 5,000 pages.

Williams said Najmah is at a college-freshman reading level.

Just a few years ago, Najmah wouldn’t have been able to read those books.

She was born in Maryland, then spent the first six years of her life with her family in Tanzania. At 6, she left behind her parents to live with her aunt and uncle in Charlotte. (She visits her parents each summer.)

Education quality was not strong in Tanzania, she said, and even at the ripe age of 6, she felt was not doing well or learning much.

Now, after living with her aunt and uncle for the past six years, Najmah is bilingual (her native tongue is Swahili) and more fully appreciates the education she’s getting here.

“I like living here a lot because America has big opportunities,” she said. “If you go to college in Tanzania, they’re not as sophisticated as here. You learn more here, and there are more jobs.”

“Sophisticated.” “Troublesome.” “Alien.” Those are the kinds of adjectives you’ll hear as Najmah engages easily in conversation.

She spent only a year in English as a Second Language classes, supplemented by her aunt’s guidance with reading and writing.

Education, family and faith are her main priorities, she said. A typical afternoon for Najmah involves coming home from school, changing clothes, praying, finishing chores and homework, and then her favorite: reading.

Najmah began wearing a hijab, or headscarf, to school this year as part of her Muslim faith.

“I wasn’t sure about it, because everyone was looking at me,” she said. “One boy was being really mean and calling me a terrorist.”

But that didn’t deter her. “I don’t care what people think as long as I have my friends.”

Williams said he’s observed Najmah as a student with self-confidence, and that she’s kind to others.

“She is one of the few students I know who is that intelligent but does not have an ounce of cockiness or overconfidence,” he said. “She never puts anyone down, and she’s always willing to help.”

And, generally speaking, she loves school.

“When she’s sick, she even wants to go to school,” said her aunt, Aysha-Zahra Hussein.

Najmah started at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle this year and is applying to attend a middle school that has an International Baccalaureate program for next year.

She said she’d like to gain enough college credits through the IB program to be able to skip a year of college.

Najmah’s lengthy daily reading habit began when she first came to America and, in her aunt’s estimation, watched too many cartoons. Television got limited to the weekends, and two hours of reading was Najmah’s alternative. She said she’s glad her aunt got her reading. “You pretend you’re there and can do anything.”

And what would she like to do when she grows up?

Najmah immediately smiles and jabs her pointer finger. “A doctor.” But not the kind that does surgery, “because that’s gross.” She said she’d like to research medicines, perhaps as a biomedical engineer.

“I want to help cure diseases because I like to help people,” she said.

For now, she’ll continue the sixth grade.

Najmah has a hard time picking a favorite subject. Math is tops, she said, because she likes solving problems and challenging herself. She said she likes language arts, too, but she likes “to read stories, not write them.”

Then she amended that statement: “When I’m in the mood, I write deep things.”

Najmah said she enjoys writing sad stories. “When someone reads it, I like there to be a lot of emotions,” she said, before smiling, “but with happy endings.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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