Aram’s story—from Iraq to Loma Linda
Aram Deragobian poses for a photo with Armenian boys while on a mission trip to Armenia last June.
Rather than the army fatigues that he cautiously wore as a teen, Aram Deragobian now wears his blue scrubs at the Loma Linda University School of Dentistry (LLUSD).
Mr. Deragobian was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and attended a Catholic elementary school. He enjoyed school and was a diligent student. This motivated him to apply to the academically enriching Baghdad College High School (BCHS). The presence of the word “college” in its name is proof of this high school’s intense curriculum. It offered college preparatory courses and was the only school in Iraq that taught English.
American Jesuits founded BCHS, but Saddam Hussein gained control of the school. Mr. Hussein’s son graduated from BCHS and became principal when Mr. Deragobian began attending the school. Under new leadership, students in the seventh grade were required to participate in a month-long summer training session in order to prepare them for the army.
“We woke up early and endured a long day of physical training. We also learned how to handle weapons and took part in drills such as being dropped into the water from helicopters,” describes Mr. Deragobian. This training was physically and emotionally difficult for him, especially since he did not see his family for several weeks.
By the end of the training, Mr. Deragobian knew he did not want to fight in the army. “God didn’t make us to hate and kill,” he says. “We were made to help people.”
Aram Deragobian (standing at right) is surrounded by his family in Iraq in 1997.
Mr. Deragobian’s father echoed these feelings because he also did not want his son training to fight at a young age. For eight years, Mr. Deragobian’s father served in the army, and he did not want his son to endure the same kind of violence and turmoil.
Mr. Deragobian previously experienced the oppressive nature of the Iraqi government while working as an engineer in a company. Mr. Hussein was upset the company’s workers were not obeying his demands and felt they were not working to their potential. As a result, engineers, including Mr. Deragobian’s father, librarians, and janitors were all imprisoned. For several months, Mr. Deragobian and his family did not see their father.
This imprisonment, along with Mr. Deragobian’s army training, convinced Mr. Deragobian’s father that it was time to leave Iraq. However, time was working against the Deragobian family. Male teenagers over the age of 18 were not allowed to cross the border, and Mr. Deragobian was already 15 years old. It would take a few years for their papers to be processed and the family did not have much time before they would have to leave. Fortunately, Mr. Deragobian’s grandmother, who was already living in the United States, came to Iraq to help make arrangements and collect the family’s papers.
In 1996, Mr. Deragobian’s grandmother notified the family that their papers were ready. However, the family’s preparations were not over. Mr. Deragobian’s parents had to make arrangements for their family business, a shoe factory owned by Mr. Deragobian’s father and uncle.
Additionally, the family also had to coordinate their departure because they did not want their neighbors or the government to know they were leaving. The family decided Mr. Deragobian and his mother would leave first, then his father and two sisters would follow.
In August 1998, the Deragobian family arrived on American soil in Los Angeles. “I can still picture that great day,” recalls Mr. Deragobian.
Although Mr. Deragobian was happy to be in the United States, he knew his transition from Iraq would be difficult. However, Mr. Deragobian was motivated to work hard for his future.
One of his first priorities was to continue his education. When he took a placement test, the results placed Mr. Deragobian at a college level. However, Mr. Deragobian was not certain he wanted to dive right into college since he had just arrived as an immigrant.
Additionally, he only finished three years of high school in Iraq and his family did not know if they could support him financially.
Instead, Mr. Deragobian completed his high school education at Redlands High School. Mr. Deragobian graduated in 2000 and went on to attend La Sierra University (LSU) in Riverside.
In order to save time and money, Mr. Deragobian decided to complete his bachelor’s degree within three years. Although it would be difficult to fulfill all the prerequisites, Mr. Deragobian was determined to obtain his degree. At one point, he was taking 27 units and was simultaneously enrolled at La Sierra University as well as California State University, San Bernardino, and was taking online classes at San Francisco College.
While Mr. Deragobian was at LSU, his uncle introduced him and his sister to the field of dentistry. Mr. Deragobian’s uncle graduated from LLUSD and was working as a dentist.
Mr. Deragobian’s sister, who was in medical school when the family was living in Iraq, was inspired by her uncle to apply to LLUSD. Mr. Deragobian also became interested in dentistry and observed his uncle at work as well as his sister in her studies. Additionally, a family friend invited Mr. Deragobian to shadow him at his orthodontist office. These experiences encouraged Mr. Deragobian to pursue a career in dentistry.
However, Mr. Deragobian was unfamiliar with American customs and did not want this to hinder his education. He decided to volunteer at the Loma Linda University Medical Center gift shop to polish his English and learn about American customs. While volunteering and observing the field of dentistry, he continued to attend LSU. In 2003, Mr. Deragobian graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Before Mr. Deragobian graduated from LSU, he knew he wanted to attend LLUSD. In fact, the only dental school he applied to was LLUSD. “I don’t know why I was so confident,” jokes Mr. Deragobian. His confidence paid off because he is now in his final year of dental school.
Mr. Deragobian is participating in research through LLUSD’s International Dentist Program and is also actively involved in Students for International Mission Service. He recently returned from a mission trip to Armenia this past June. While working at a dental clinic with Dr. Garabedian, Mr. Deragobian saw 72 children at an orphanage. He did not mind the 12-hour shifts because the children touched his heart. “I was crying inside,” explains Mr. Deragobian. “I asked myself why these kids do not have the same opportunity as myself. I realized God took me from Iraq to give me an opportunity to help.”
In addition to Armenia, Mr. Deragobian has also traveled to Mexico on day trips. When asked why he continues to go on mission trips, Mr. Deragobian simply replies, “I love it. Serving others has truly touched my heart.”
He hopes future dental students will accompany him to Armenia and possibly Iraq to help children in orphanages. He has not been back to Iraq since he left in 1998, but he is willing to return to help the children.
He could be earning more by working in the United States, but to Mr. Deragobian “money is seeing people in need and helping them. It is getting hugs from children at work.”
Mr. Deragobian wants to continue helping others and plans on wearing his scrubs for many more years.
By Kristine Gamboa