When the ongoing civil war in Syria intruded on the life of 13-year-old Sara Abou Rashed, it did so with a bang -- shock waves from a bomb landing nearby blew out the windows of her school.

The memory of that moment is etched in the mind of the young woman, now 17.

"I've never really forgotten any of it," Sara said. "It was a crucial moment in my life that I know I will never forget."

That harrowing incident, along with the ongoing threat that her mother, Razan Oueis, who was on the faculty at a university in Damascus, might be kidnapped and held for ransom, led to an important family decision.

Sara, Oueis and the young girl's grandmother would leave their homeland and come to the United States, settling in Columbus where a relative already resided.

"I was afraid for anything to happen to her because Sara is all I have," Oueis said of her only child.

Sara knew virtually no English when she became a freshman at Centennial High School. She said she felt isolated by the language barrier.

"That was enough for me to put in a lot of hard work," Sara said, on the eve of being one of five recent high school graduates from throughout the state to be honored during the June 15 Beat the Odds award celebration presented by the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio.

"By the end of Sara's freshman year, she was on the honor roll and had a firm grasp of the English language," according to the announcement of the awards event.

Sara became an accomplished poet on the school team. She said she wants to become a politician, to inspire others to better our world."

"Poetry in English was my way of expressing myself artistically," said Sara, who was one of four student trustees from Centennial High this past year to serve on the Northwest Civic Association board of trustees.

"To see Sara make a move to this country and buckle down and do whatever it took to not only become functional with the language, but to master it in a way that makes most of our communication pale by comparison is inspiring," said Pam Kreber, Children's Defense Fund-Ohio interim executive director.

"That late-night, early-morning grit and determination came from Sara," Kreber said. "That speaks to who she is."

"I feel proud of her," said Oueis, who now teaches Arabic languages at Columbus State Community College. "She's confident. She's determined. If she wants to do anything, she will do it."

Sara, who taught herself English by painstakingly translating every word in every one of her freshman textbooks, will be going to Denison University in the fall, through a scholarship offered under the I Know I Can partnership between the liberal arts college in Granville and Columbus City Schools.

She said she plans to major in international studies and political science "all inspired by my life story."

"I really want to make a change in society," Sara said. "I want to inspire people."

Beat the Odds Award recipients receive $5,000 college scholarships, a laptop computer, an invitation to join Children's Defense Fund leadership programs and other support from the organization.

kparks@thisweeknews.com

@KevinParksTW1