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Minhal and Mohammed Makshood: Overcoming Poverty, Civil War to Find Success

Together, UAlbany students Mohammed and Minhal Makshood overcame adversity to excel in UAlbany's biology program.

There is no sibling rivalry between University at Albany graduates Minhal and Mohammed Makshood. Growing up in war-torn Sri Lanka, they faced overwhelming financial struggles and were separated from their father. Through it all, they remained pillars of strength for each other.  

"People think it’s weird that we have such a good relationship.  But in order to function, we need each other. She's my strength and I’m hers," said Mohammed, 23.  

The family had moved to Saudi Arabia, where their father built a successful restaurant business. However, as an immigrant he was forced to give up ownership and lost everything. The family sought refuge in their native Sri Lanka, where their financial hardships continued. Their father emigrated to the U.S., planning to make enough money to bring his family overseas. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 created greater scrutiny for Muslim immigrants and it took 10 years for the family to reunite. In the meantime, the family was forced to live in a partially built house while enduring the daily dangers of suicide bombings due to Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war.  

"You know something is wrong when suicide bombings are normal parts of your existence," said Minhal, 22, who could not attend school at times because of a lack of funds. It's frightening, but people know they have to live with it and be strong." 

Minhal coped by reviewing and completing her cousin's homework. When her family was finally able to pay for school again, she took exams to make up for the grades she missed. Finally, family friends were able to give the siblings money for visas so they could reunite with their father in 2008.  

Even after they arrived at UAlbany -- first Mohammed, then Minhal six months later -- their financial struggles followed them. The Makshoods were unable to apply for federal financial aid due to the particulars of their status, threatening their ability to pay tuition bills each semester. Each time though, someone provided tuition money or loans to help the siblings out.  

"We’ve been so grateful for all of the help we’ve gotten along the way," said Minhal, noting that her manager at Subway, Nigham Shah, and her brother's friend, George Karakolev, were among the good samaritans. 

The Makshoods rewarded their supporters' kindness by flourishing in the classroom and the lab. As biology students, both have earned high GPAs and Dean's List recognitions. Minhal also recently received the Chancellor's Award for academic excellence.  

In the end, the siblings are not without their differences: He's better at physics; she's better at organic chemistry. He teases her about her 4.0.; she chides him about being their mom's favorite. With such playful dispositions and scholarly success, no one would ever know they grew up in an environment fraught with civil war and poverty.    

Both are considering med school after graduation and eventually hope to conduct humanitarian work. Minhal plans to take part in missions to developing countries in need of medical care, while Mohammed plans on serving underprivileged children.  

"Graduation, to us, means freedom," said Mohammed. "We have opportunities now. It’s like climbing a mountain; we’ve reached a peak. Now it’s on to the next one."

For more graduate stories, visit our 2012 Commencement page.

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