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Holiday Hopes: Dedicated student seeks scholarship money

Fereshta Abdul Khaled, center, shares a plate of french fries with her sisters Sunia, left, and Arezu as their mother, Marzia Abdul Khaled, background, prepares more at their home in Temple Terrace.
Fereshta Abdul Khaled, center, shares a plate of french fries with her sisters Sunia, left, and Arezu as their mother, Marzia Abdul Khaled, background, prepares more at their home in Temple Terrace.
Published Nov. 28, 2014

TEMPLE TERRACE

She was 12 days old when her father was kidnapped by the Taliban. It was 1996 and they were living in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was on his way home from work to his wife and four children, the oldest just 5.

Fereshta Abdul Khaled was too young to witness her mother's search for her father in their homeland or the trip to Iran and then Russia, to escape the Taliban and find a safe home. Nor does she remember her father's touch or his love.

Her earliest memories are of the Tampa area. She was 7 years old, a scrawny and sickly child who cried a lot. She spoke no English and sobbed in first grade at Pizzo Elementary until a teacher called her older sister to console her.

Today, Fereshta, who recently turned 18, lives with her three sisters, their mother and grandmother in a Temple Terrace townhouse. Her mother tells them about life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, where girls were not allowed to learn or have a career and had to rely on a man.

For them, the American dream is education.

"We are all females trying to overcome these things," Fereshta said.

When they first arrived, her mother rode a bike to a nearby hotel, where she worked as a maid and later to restaurants, where she worked in kitchens. Fereshta remembers times there wasn't enough food for the family and her mother went without. She remembers a pair of sandals she had cried for in Walmart and somehow, her mother got them the next day.

At Greco Middle School, Fereshta signed up for the STEM program, which emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math. She had started school a year behind her peers, and longed to catch up. She begged a counselor to let her take a test to prove she was smart enough.

She couldn't do that, but the counselor told her about online classes and dual enrollment. While still in middle school, Fereshta started taking high school classes online from home. The summer after her freshman year at Tampa Bay Tech, she took college English at Hillsborough Community College.

Fereshta finished high school in two years and earned several college credits. Now a sophomore in the honors program at the University of South Florida, her grade point average is 3.89.

"I've had to work hard, but thank God, I've always been safe," she said. "I've always had the support of my mother."

Fereshta and two of her sisters work at CVS to support the family. Their mother can no longer work due to health problems. Each of the sisters also attends college full time. Bright Futures pays for tuition and Pell grants cover some other expenses. The Tampa Housing Authority covers half their rent and recently gave Fereshta a $1,500 scholarship. Fereshta is trying to hold off taking out any student loans until she reaches medical school. Meanwhile, the family still struggles to cover their bills.

"When she sees us working so hard, she is very disappointed," Fereshta said of her mother. "She tells us, 'I've made you go through so much. I wish I was a better parent.' "

One day recently, Fereshta and her sister Arezu, 19, debated a pretzel she had bought at USF during a long day of classes. The cost of the pretzel would have covered a meal cooked at home, Arezu told Fereshta. But Fereshta argued that sometimes a splurge is necessary.

Last summer she took 14 credit hours at USF and after her adviser told her that was the limit, she added another three credits at Hillsborough Community College. She picked up extra hours at CVS, including a two-week span when she worked 99 hours.

She started this semester with 19 credits. After her first exam in organic chemistry, she met with the teacher to discuss her grade, a C. She didn't want her GPA of 3.89 to suffer. Fereshta plans to apply to medical schools, so she decided to drop the class.

"I've been working so hard for so long," she said. It bothered her for weeks. "I'm not a quitter."

At the end of the day, Fereshta wants to prove to her mother that all her sacrifices were worthwhile.

Contact Elisabeth Parker at hillsnews@tampabay.com.