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Head Start: A Life-Changing Decision

When her husband got a job offer in Portland seven years ago, it was a difficult choice for Nermeen Elzaghal and her family. It meant leaving everything behind. In Egypt, they were surrounded by family and a complete support network. The job offer was a good one, however, so they moved to Portland with their young son, Yaseen.

At the time, Nermeen spoke limited English, didn’t know how to drive, and wasn’t able to use her degree in Family Services. So she and son Yaseen stayed inside most of the day, watching TV and crying from homesickness.

Her husband, Seif, heard about Head Start program for Yaseen, and figured it would be good for him to start school early and learn English. It ended up making all the difference. According to Nermeen, “it changed my life.”

Normally a soft-spoken person, Nermeen gets animated when she lists all the ways Head Start changed circumstances for their whole family. “It wasn’t healthy for Yaseen to be inside all day,” Nermeen said. “He missed our family as much as I did and kept asking when we could return to Egypt.” In the Head Start program, Yaseen started to learn English, make friends and thrive in the new environment.

Head Start staff were “nice and welcoming, which made the transition easier,” she said. “I started making friends with other parents, people from around the world. They gave me information on places to go, we exchanged information, our kids played together.”

Soon, Nermeen was volunteering in the program, translating for families to help them to find services to help with food, education and housing. With her own background as an immigrant, Nermeen can relate to what many people new to Portland experience. “Some families don’t want to ask for help,” she said. “But I tell them it’s okay.”

Now Yaseen is 8 and thriving in second grade. Younger daughter Sara, 5, is also enrolled in Head Start. Sara has had a much easier time of it since she was born in Portland, the only home she has known.

When a staff position opened up, the Head Start staff encouraged Nermeen to apply since her education and background made her perfect for the role. Now Nermeen serves as a Head Start Family Advocate, enrolling other families in Head Start, doing home visits, helping find food, clothing or any other help they might need.

Having her children in the Head Start program allowed Nermeen to study English at Portland Community College, where she hopes to finish her degree soon. Neighborhood House also offered her flexible hours once she joined the staff so she could take the required training classes and continue her degree plan. “They’ve been very supportive of helping me achieve my degree,” Nermeen said.