The summer before Khalid Sharafaddin ’16 came to Wheaton, he went home to Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, after two years spent attending an international school in Hong Kong. It was the summer of 2012, about four months after election of a new president that ended the Yemeni Revolution of 2011, and the country was still recovering.
“Riots, every single day,” he said. Until the dark of night came, they never stopped.
Sharafaddin was there from early June until mid-August, when he left for Wheaton. He estimates that he left his house only five or six times in the entire summer.
He recalls doing little that was productive during that time, other than visiting with his family, which is clearly very important in his life. Sharafaddin said that there is nothing for him in Yemen anymore, apart from them.
For a young man whose life has been surrounded by confrontation, he is, perhaps surprisingly, put together.
Sharafaddin’s father was an only child, the product of parents who could not have any other children. Because of that, they decided that his father should have many children, in, as Sharafaddin puts it, the “typical Arab fashion.” Born on March 21, 1992, Sharafaddin is the oldest of nine. He has never met his youngest sibling.
His polite, reserved demeanor does not give away the fact that he has not seen his family in two years. It does not give away his experiences serving in the Yemeni military, or learning at an international school in Hong Kong, or going to high school for a year in Seattle. Sharafaddin is a man who has been through enough to be happy where he is.
“It gives me a sense of purpose,” he said of his experience at Wheaton, which he considers academically challenging. “I did not cross 6,000 miles for something easy.”
Sharafaddin’s journey to Wheaton, like those of many international students who end up at the school, has been a long and unlikely one.
He said that his family “used to be” prominent in Yemen. His grandfather was Ahmad bin Yahya Hamidaddin, the last king of North Yemen, who ruled until he died in 1962. That man’s son, Sharafaddin’s father, is an accountant. His mother is a former schoolteacher.
Sharafaddin lived in Yemen until he was 16. In 2008, he had his first opportunity to travel out of the country, in an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. He was one of 30 Yemeni citizens chosen to live with American host families and attend public high school in the U.S. for a year.
Sharafaddin ended up in Seattle, Washington, where he learned to speak English. His knowledge of the language would aid him greatly in future endeavors.
One morning, he woke up to an email from his father that contained a link to a news article. One of his friends, a 16-year-old named Abdul Al-Rahman, had blown himself up in a suicide bombing in East Yemen, surrounded by South Korean tourists. Al-Rahman had joined Al-Queda. Sharafaddin did not go into detail about the influence the event had on him.
After his time in Seattle was up, Sharafaddin went back to Yemen for one more year. During that time, he had one of the most intense experiences of his life. He was recruited for a counterterrorism unit in Yemen’s army.
“Only what they call ‘elite’ people get into it,” Sharafaddin said of the unit. “You have to have a certain physical or mental capability to join.”
Physically, he was average at best. But Sharafaddin already spoke three languages (Persian was the third) and had travelled before, both of which were qualities that the military considered attractive.
At the age of 17, he was recruited and trained to do intelligence work, serving as an undercover informant. He trained for six months before going out into the field. The group’s target was Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda is known to recruit heavily in Yemen. “They recruit teenagers who are either desperate for economic stability, or they brainwash them to become extremists through religious ideology,” Sharafaddin said.
Posing as one of these youths, he joined Al-Qaeda for four months, using the same people who had recruited his friend as an in to the organization.
How did he find them? “Easy,” he said. “If you find one of them, they lead you to the rest.”
Sharafaddin said that the group is so widespread that a person can walk into a mosque, find “the most radical” person in it, and often join up, so long as the potential member is perceived as innocent, “or an idiot.”
Al-Qaeda planned to give him the job of using his English skills to get close to tourists, preferably foreign officials, and find out where they were going. The information would aid the group in selecting potential targets. With help from the Yemeni military, he was able to avoid doing so without blowing his cover.
In the four months, he worked on a single Al-Qaeda operation, which he was able to foil successfully through collaboration with the military.
“It takes a long time for them to prepare,” he said. An operation for requires the group to scope out a location and then successfully convince people to become suicide bombers for the attack.
Sharafaddin’s job was to give the military a time and a place for the attack, which he did. As a result, they were able to intervene as the group was about to strike and arrest the potential bombers.
Despite the success, Sharafaddin quickly decided that he wanted to get out of the business of being an informant.
“It consumes all your energy, all your life, you’re always stressed, you’re always worried that your cover might blow. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
He organized an Al-Qaeda meeting at a safe house that was “busted” by the Yemeni military. The military arrested everyone in the house, including Sharafaddin.
Because they immediately separate all prisoners, sending them to prisons around the country, he could be assured of an exit from the organization that would not blow his cover; none of the prisoners who had been in the house would ever see each other again.
Shortly after leaving the military, Sharafaddin was influenced by a friend to apply to the United World Colleges (UWC), a group of high schools located around the world that allow gifted students to finish high school for two years in an extremely diverse environment. He was accepted to the UWC schools in Canada, Norway and Hong Kong, and picked the latter.
What followed are the two years that Sharafaddin considers the best of his life.
He loved being around students from all over the world, even if the school was only 250 students strong. “In all fairness, privacy was a problem,” he said.
“Believe it or not, if you go to the laundry room, and you find a shirt thrown there, someone lost it, you would know who it belonged to.”
Two other current Wheaton students attended the UWC in Hong Kong while Sharafaddin was there. One of them was Michael Ratliff ’16, who was at the time, a year above him.
Ratliff’s first memory of Sharafaddin was seeing his name at the top of a list of students who the second-years were picking up from the airport. UWC students often “Facebook stalk” new students before picking them up.
“All of the girls sort of coalesced over the idea of picking this boy up from the airport,” he said.
Sharafaddin heard about Wheaton through UWC. The college has a relationship with UWC, and a fair number of UWC students have gone to Wheaton. Wheaton sent a representative to Sharafaddin’s school in Hong Kong, and he was encouraged to apply.
After graduating from school in Hong Kong, Sharafaddin returned home for a summer. He has not been back to Yemen since that summer, and thinks he may go back until 2015.
Sharafaddin would like to stay in the U.S. after graduating Wheaton. He does not want to go to graduate school, believing that he is done with education. He thinks that maybe, he will raise a family, but currently is happy to keep his life uncomplicated.
“It’s quite simple,” he said of his plan. “You know, I like simple.”