Syrian-born table tennis player Soumar Haddad is now a student at Citrus College. (Evan Solano/Clarion)
When Citrus College student Soumar Haddad and her family immigrated to America in September 2012, she left behind the Syrian civil war and her No. 1 ranking in table tennis.
Haddad, 18, began playing table tennis when she was 8 years old. By the time she was 16, she was winning cadet and junior table tennis competitions.
“I started winning medals,” Haddad said. “Step by step I joined the national team in 2010 when I was 16,” Haddad said.
All of the Syrian national teams live in Tishreen Athletics City in Damascus, the capital of Syria.
Haddad lived in The Village with her teammates and coaches, practicing six to eight hours per day.
“You have to sacrifice when you are on the national team,” Haddad said. “You cannot go out with your friends and stay up late.”
As a teenager, Haddad dealt with challenges that her friends never had to go through. “I could not even go to school everyday because I was traveling. I had to study on my own and take tests whenever I was back in Syria,” she said.
Haddad is ranked No. 2 in the Middle East, and No. 19 in Asia. Her national team is ranked No. 80 in the world.
When she was 16, Haddad participated in 21-and-over competitions.
She was the youngest captain of a Syrian national team.
As her table tennis career took off and the Syrian civil war continued in to its fourth year, the terrorist group ISIS began threatening Syrian sports teams
“[ISIS] sent the national teams death threats,” Haddad said. “My parents were worried about me, so we moved.”
Haddad’s family chose to settle in Glendora where they have relatives to support them as they build a safer, if not temporary, life.
Soumar’s older sister, Sandra Haddad, 23, has watched Soumar and their parents struggle with the transition from Syria to America.
Soumar did not chose to come to America and that was the hardest thing for her to accept.
“It is a new society and a different language,” Sandra said. “For my sister and me, it is easier to learn a new language, but for my parents, it is really hard.”
Both women studied English in Syria but faced difficulty speaking it fluently when they moved.
Joslyn Cuevas, a STEM major at Citrus, first met Soumar Haddad when she enrolled at Glendora High.
“My first impression of Soumar is that she is extremely smart,” Cuevas said. “She is very formal in character and manner.”
Cuevas and Haddad were in some of the same classes and hung out on occasion during high school.
Cuevas said she saw firsthand how Haddad’s character and determination affected those around her, especially her family.
The Haddad sisters currently work two jobs while attending classes at Citrus College.
Somehow they make time to for Soumar to practice at California Table Tennis, a training facility in Rosemead owned by nine-time U.S. Women’s Champion, Gao Jun.
“Soumar is my soul mate,” said Sandra Haddad who never misses a chance to see her sister smile and loves taking Soumar to practice.
The sisters agree that this is the best facility for Soumar to practice and improve her skills.
Soumar practices twice a week for an hour in between classes and both jobs.
“Life is expensive here,” Soumar said. “In Syria they paid for my equipment and a scholarship to the most expensive private university in the country, but out here, I have to take care of myself.”
Sandra expressed constant admiration of her sister’s drive to excel.
“She is committed to what she wants and works hard to do it, no matter what,” Sandra said. “She will stay up late to study and go to practice the next day, and she does not mind it.”
Soumar Haddad believes her attentiveness to her coaches and her willingness to learn set her apart.
“I do not show off,” she said. “When you show off, you forget yourself and where you started.”
Sandra Haddad believes that her sister’s biggest challenge is accepting the fact that the Haddad family is here now and that they have to adjust to a different lifestyle.
“Back home she was the champion, and she used to live with and travel with the national team around the world,” Sandra said. “Here she can’t do that.”
As she can no longer be part of the national team, her rankings are starting to drop. However, she is still No. 1 in Syria.
Soumar credits her determination to keep going first to her family and second to her long-time coach Caroline Baroumeh, who Soumar said taught her patience and persistence.
“This is what she loves, and I want her to be happy,” Sandra said. “Soumar is missing her old life, and we do our best to help her keep it.”
Soumar plans to enter in the LA Open Butterfly Table Tennis Tournament as soon as she feels she is ready to compete again.
She is conflicted about competing again, as she will no longer be representing Syria.
“I want to take care of myself, coach, practice and save money,” Soumar said. “I want to improve and get stronger till the day I can go back and represent my country again.”