By David Simpson

On May 6, Fozi Alkaifi – only 19 years old – will graduate from Old Dominion University with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics. That’s notable in itself, but there’s more.

On the same day, his sister Seena, 21, a public health major, will receive her bachelor’s from ODU.

And so will their sister Sana, 24, who’s studying psychology.

That’s right: The Alkaifi name will be announced no fewer than three times at S.B. Ballard Stadium.

“It’s the Year of Graduation for the family!” Seena said with a laugh.

They’ve been through a lot to get here. Through it all – fleeing civil war in Yemen, moving to America, adjusting to the culture, enrolling in new schools, finding academic paths, enduring COVID-19 shutdowns – they've drawn strength from a powerful source: one another.

“Family is first,” Fozi said. “Family is important.”

In early 2015, warplanes fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen bombed the southwestern city of Taiz, where the Alkaifi family lived – five children and their mother. At the time, their father and oldest brother were out of the country.  

The children felt the blast while playing with their cousins outside their grandfather’s house, Fozi remembered.

“We saw the smoke coming up, and I told all my cousins, 'Come in! Come in! Come in!’ And they just started running up into the house. And you know, when a bomb occurs, the shaking of the house continues. When a bomb goes down, there's a couple of explosions, not just that one. It explodes, and then it explodes again and the house shakes.”

That wasn’t their first such experience. One day, a shell exploded near the school Sana and Seena attended.

"There was a huge noise, and the whole school went crazy,” Seena said. “We were under tables, and I vividly remember the faces of all the girls. It was terrifying.”  

Making matters worse, the family lived just one street away from the Ministry of Transport, Seena said, a prime target where warehouses held explosives used in building roads and rail lines.

"So if something happened, our house was literally next to it,” Fozi said.

They knew they had to get out.

“It was urgent,” Sana said.

The Alkaifis were more fortunate than many of their neighbors. They had a safe place to go.

Their father is an expatriate who has lived in Norfolk since 1998 and works as a chief electrician for the Military Sealift Command. Before civil war broke out in his home country, he would visit Yemen for a month every year or two, his children said. A civilian, he spends most of his time at sea aboard vessels serving U.S. Navy ships and bases.

Their mother is a stay-at-home mom who was “both our mom and dad at the same time when our dad wasn’t there,” Sana said.

Despite the upheaval of moving in 2015, Seena said, the siblings began to adapt to their new situation. They enrolled in school, eventually graduating from Granby High in Norfolk.

When the time came to go to college, each of them opted to stay close to their family.

“Family is first. Family is important.” – Fozi Alkaifi

Sana started at Tidewater Community College as a medical laboratory student, later transferring to Old Dominion University to study psychology.

Seena and Fozi came to ODU together as first-year students. Seena started out studying dental hygiene but soon changed to public health. Fozi entered the civil engineering program before switching to big data analytics, a major within the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

Belonging to a tight-knit family helped them navigate the changes, they said. And though their father is often away, his children see him more often than they used to.

"I personally like it here,” Seena said, “because I get to experience life with my dad. It's like he's closer here than when we were back in Yemen.”

At ODU, they were happy to find students from a wide variety of backgrounds.  

“ODU is so diverse,” Sana said, “I feel like every time I see a person that's Middle Eastern or from my country I'll be like, ‘Oh, I still have family here as well.’”

“You would see people interested in learning about you as well,” Seena said, “and that's something I love. If I feel welcomed or your curiosity toward me is really positive, that's something that I enjoy teaching others about.”

They all speak fluent English, having learned it in private school back home. Still, some social situations have been hard.

“When we first came here, it was a cultural shock,” Seena said. “Like, you don't know how to act. What to do? Joking or talking, it's all really difficult, even if I'm good in English.”

But they know where they can turn for easy, deep communication.

Fozi said: “My escape is just, ‘Oh – my siblings! I can go back and just be me.’”

Though pursuing different majors and interests, all three have excelled in the classroom. And all three have worked as tutors for the College of Sciences.

“They have all been amazing,” said Andrea Stephen, manager of science support services in the Science Tutoring Centers. “Each of them is very dependable and responsible. They're able to maintain their grades while also helping students who are being challenged in their courses.”

Sana has tutored students in psychology, Seena in chemistry and Fozi in math.

“I have a passion for teaching,” Seena said, “so I was like, OK, let me just do this and help others.”

“I love to see how students feel happy after passing their exam – getting a good grade after they have been struggling,” Fozi said.

Seena and Fozi recruited Sana after she aced a tough psychology course, Quantitative Methods.

“My sister and brother were like, 'Why don't you just teach that class, like, tutor? Because there's a psychology tutoring place,’” Sana said. “I was like, ‘OK, I've seen the students struggle in that class and how hard it was, and I should help others as well.’”

Besides tutoring, Seena worked as an undergraduate research assistant for Erika Frydenlund and Lydia Cleveland Sá. She helped start the Pre-Dental Committee at ODU in Fall 2022 and has been vice chairman since then. She also serves as secretary of the Muslim Student Association. As for her future, she has applied to dental schools but is also considering a master’s program at ODU in education or public health.

Fozi published a paper on bioinformatics in the journal Cell Reports with Jiangwen Sun of the Computer Science Department and is hoping to publish a paper this summer with Felix Ringer of the Physics Department. In August, Fozi will start work as a data analyst with Capital One in Richmond. At the same time, he wants to take physics classes and possibly pursue a Ph.D. in mathematical physics.

Sana is a self-employed photographer who lately has been taking pictures of other graduating seniors. She has a job waiting for her as a teacher assistant at the Barry Robinson Center in Norfolk. Long term, she's considering applying for the master’s program in psychology at ODU in preparation for working in clinical psychology, with a focus on children.

As the Alkaifis finish their last semester, their father has managed to get leave to attend graduation.

It will be a grand day. But May 6 won't mark the end of the family’s remarkable story at ODU.

Another brother – Magdi – is just behind them. An information systems and technology major in the Strome College of Business, he’s due to graduate in 2024.

And their youngest brother, Ramzi, is graduating from Granby High this spring. He has been accepted at ODU and is weighing the offer. But as far as his siblings are concerned, his course is clear.

“I told him to accept it, because you've gotta follow the history,” Fozi said.

“That’s right," Seena said, laughing. “People exit, new ones have gotta come in.”