NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Rukaya Alrubaye, the Youth Leadership Council delegate from Arkansas, spoke on behalf of the NRECA youth organization on Tuesday at PowerXchange.

Rukaya, who represented Ozarks Electric Cooperative in Fayetteville during last year’s Youth Tour, was chosen by her peers to be the YLC delegate for her home state. She was then chosen from among 32 applicants by a screening committee to be NRECA's national youth spokesperson.

The 17-year-old high school senior at Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville is passionate about volunteering to help educate young people in her community about the dangers of misusing alcohol, drugs and tobacco. She has advocated at the state and federal level for more funding for substance misuse prevention and vaping awareness initiatives. Her efforts were recognized when she won the Youth Advocate of the Year Award in 2022 from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. She also received the Outstanding Youth Award in 2021 and the Outstanding Youth Group Award in 2022 from the Arkansas Prevention Network.

Rukaya would like to become a surgeon and provide medical care to disadvantaged people in developing nations.

She was born in Iraq and moved to the United States from her war-torn homeland in 2008 when she was 2 years old. Rukaya and her family became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2017. Her parents are both professors at the University of Arkansas.

“To be able to share my love story with this country in front of so many impactful people is truly incredible,” she said. “As part of NRECA’s Youth Tour program, I have met so many youth leaders who inspire me.”

Read Rukaya’s full speech:

I'd like to tell you a love story. A story about my family, and how I fell in love with this wonderful country. But just like any good love story, it's complicated.

My family and I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, from Iraq in January 2008, when I was 2 years old. We couldn't have done this without retired U.S. Lt. Col. Barney Morris—a man I would later come to know simply as Grandpa Barney.

But let me give you a little background.

During the war in Iraq, my father worked for RTI International, a company in Iraq that supported the American troops. At the time, he was Lt. Col. Barney Morris' chief of staff. Like many of his Iraqi friends who worked with the American troops, my father's life was in danger every day.

One day, surrounding militias attacked the U.S. compound where my father and Lt. Col. Morris worked. Through sounds of heavy gunshots and mortar attacks, my father raced around the compound to make sure everyone had evacuated. When he reached the building's rooftop, however, he found a despondent but determined Lt. Col. Morris, sitting there with an AK-47 in his hand, ready to defend a hopeless situation. It didn't take long for my father to realize that this man's life was in imminent danger. My father urged him to leave quickly and move to a safe location. Both men will tell you today that if Lt. Col. Morris had stayed on that roof, he would have been killed.

The dangerous situation in Iraq didn't improve, but my father continued looking for opportunities to complete his Ph.D. while being an instructor at the University of Wasit. In 2006, he received an academic scholarship to continue his studies in the U.S. It was his ticket to safety and a better life, so he called Lt. Col. Morris for help. He asked my father if he'd like to come to Arkansas. My father had never even heard of Arkansas before, but he immediately said yes to a safer life for him and his family.

The process of getting out of Iraq was draining on my young parents—financially and emotionally. They were taking their three children—my 4-year-old sister, 2-year-old me and my infant brother—to a foreign land, away from their family, friends and support.

When we first arrived, it was very hard for my parents, and at times, they didn't know if they could make ends meet. While studying to get their degrees from the University of Arkansas, they both picked up multiple jobs like washing dishes and prepping salads at the dining halls of the university—all while working on mastering the English language and making sure we kids were loved on and cared for.

Their tenacity paid off.

Today my mother, Dr. Hawraa Alzouwain, is a professor of Arabic, and my father, Dr. Adnan Alrubaye, is a professor of microbiology—they are both doctors at the University of Arkansas.

They hope that their story will inspire others to follow their dreams, too.

So what about that American soldier who worked to help my family find a safer and better life here in the United States? Well, that Lt. Col. Barney Morris—or, as we all call him, Grandpa Barney—also received his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Arkansas.

He gave a speech a few years ago at a ceremony where my father received the top teaching and student mentorship award.

Grandpa Barney said, “there are two things I'm most proud of in my life; my service to the United States, and bringing Adnan and his family here."

I'm so happy to inform you that both of my parents and Grandpa Barney are in the audience today. Could the three of you please stand and be recognized?

My parents have always told me that if they can survive three wars, leave their family and culture, and become professors in America, then I can do anything. That's a pretty compelling argument!

But this brings us to another complicated part of this love story. As I grew older, I struggled in society as a young Muslim Iraqi woman. The struggle continued even when I became an American citizen in 2017. One year ago, as I was sitting with my friends after school, a boy came up to me and asked, “Is 9/11 your favorite holiday?" I was so hurt and offended, because it was just one reminder of how I am often viewed in society.

But at the same time, I was determined to use this hurtful incident to be an advocate and stand up for people who don't have a strong voice.

For the past year, I have been honored to sing the National Anthem at the University of Arkansas Razorback sports games. Little old me! All by myself. In the middle of a gym. Singing about how much I love this country to almost 20,000 people. It's an emotional experience each time I do this.

I love it because for me, it is a song about patriotism and the bravery of soldiers like my Grandpa Barney. I love this country. That part is not complicated. I love it in a way that, unless you've seen the alternative to living in this country, you may not even be able to understand.

When I was 12 years old, I traveled back to Iraq with my family to visit our relatives. I was heartbroken by everything I saw. Every day, there were blackouts, and we'd have to suffer through 125-degree weather without electricity. That meant no fans, or cool air or any light. If that happened during dinner, we would have to search for each other in the shadows.

I was also told not to walk anywhere without my sandals or shoes because at any time, I could have 220 volts of electricity shocking me through the floor. At first, I was stunned and wondered how the Iraqi people could live every day like this—in their homes! But this became my new normal for a few months.

It struck me that this country was where I came from. I could have been one of the many children lost to the never-ending violence in Iraq. So when I returned home to the United States, I looked at my life differently. I didn't have to eat my dinner in the dark. I could drink a glass of cold and uncontaminated water anytime I wanted to. I could walk around with bare feet without worrying about getting killed or injured from electric shock. I became more grateful for everything I had and started to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way.

And this is why I applied for NRECA's Youth Tour program. This year, I learned so much about the history of electric cooperatives, and how electric cooperatives form a community of people who help each other. When I was in Washington, D.C., I also learned that like my extended family in Iraq, there are millions of people in the world who still don't have access to reliable electricity, but that many American electric co-ops are helping them.

My electric cooperative family plays a big role in my love story with this country. I am very grateful for the support I receive from Mitchell Johnson and the rest of the Ozark Electric Cooperative team. They inspire youth like me to use our voices to speak out and take action. And to my Grandpa, retired U.S. Lt. Col. Barney Morris, I will forever be grateful to you for giving me, a young Iraqi American immigrant, the opportunity to dream big.

Our purpose as members of the cooperative community is to help one another. My father saved Grandpa Barney's life nearly 17 years ago. It's because of their friendship that I am speaking with you today. Just one act of kindness can ripple and change the lives of others. So as a community of cooperatives, and as human beings— what can we do to help each other, and other people around the world? Because you never know who you may inspire. Or whose life you may save. You could be helping a young girl like me, from Iraq, become a leader. Because I am ready to make a difference in this world now.

Newton's Law of Energy states: Energy can't be created or destroyed. Only moved. There's an energy inside of all of us that has always been there. We didn't create it and it cannot be destroyed. So what are you going to do with YOUR energy? Are you going to be that positive force that changes this world for good? That's my plan.

But I can't do this alone. I believe that if we work together, and if you give youth the opportunity to lead, we can improve the lives of people across the globe.

Thank you.

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