Ozarks Electric Cooperative Youth Tour delegate Rukaya Alrubaye, 17, recently captivated an audience of thousands as the national youth spokesperson for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). Photo courtesy of Rukaya Alrubaye
Category: Cover Story

Fayetteville’s Rukaya Alrubaye is NRECA youth spokesperson

Rukaya Alrubaye on stage with fellow Youth Leadership Council delegates, addressing an audience of 8,000 at the NRECA national PowerXchange conference in March 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rukaya Alrubaye received some thrilling news the day before this interview. The 17-year-old recent graduate of Fayetteville’s Haas Hall Academy announces, “I was accepted into the medical school that I applied to!” She explains the selective six-year, high-school-to-med-school program at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

For this naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iraq, it’s another piece of the American dream realized. And for this aspiring surgeon, it’s the final flourish of a sensational senior year.

That year began last June, when she represented Ozarks Electric Cooperative on Youth Tour, an educational trip to Washington, D.C.

“Ozarks Electric Cooperative was proud to have Rukaya as our Youth Tour representative,” says Mitchell Johnson, the cooperative’s president and CEO. “Her poise and friendliness made it an easy choice for us. She has a servant heart, and her leadership style inspires the cooperative’s concern for community.”

Youth Tour wasn’t Rukaya’s first trip to D.C.; it wasn’t even her first trip to D.C. in 2022. She had visited in January when she — as president of Project Prevent, a statewide youth tobacco prevention coalition — attended a conference. She returned in May when she was named National Youth Advocate of the Year by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

For Rukaya, tobacco prevention advocacy is personal. She says, “Growing up, my dad had a really bad cough. And it wasn’t because he smoked, but because my grandpa smoked. My grandpa used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day for 30 years. … There’s not much education or resources (in Iraq) to combat tobacco and nicotine. … Hearing my dad’s story growing up and hearing him cough all the time and in pain … that inspired me to want to prevent that and make sure people were educated enough about it, so they don’t start.”

As a 2022 Youth Tour delegate from Ozarks Electric Cooperative, Rukaya Alrubaye visits the U.S. Capitol
As a 2022 Youth Tour delegate from Ozarks Electric Cooperative, Rukaya Alrubaye visits the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Chance Allmon

Her passion — for this cause and for this country — led to her being chosen by her Youth Tour peers to serve as the Arkansas Youth Leadership Council delegate, which included travel and training opportunities.

“It made me feel incredible,” she says, adding, “I didn’t know any of them. … All I did was tell my story in my speech, and it was amazing to see how much everybody loved it.”

Electric Cooperative of Arkansas directors loved it when she spoke at the summer conference in Jonesboro. Equally impressed, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) announced Rukaya as the organization’s national youth spokesperson earlier this year.

As spokesperson, Rukaya addressed an audience of more than 8,000 cooperative directors and employees at the organization’s PowerXchange conference in Nashville, Tennessee, in March — on the same stage that would later host football star Tim Tebow.

Rukaya Alrubaye meets football star Tim Tebow backstage at the NRECA PowerXchange conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo Courtesy of Nreca

All are opportunities that Rukaya never would have enjoyed if her family did not move from Iraq to the United States 15 years ago in search of a safer and better future.

“We know Rukaya will continue to advocate for the youth community as she continues to give back through volunteerism and as a changemaker,” Johnson says. “I look forward to seeing what her future has in store for her – I know it will be impactful.”

Nobody can tell Rukaya’s story better than she can. What follows is the moving NRECA address that she delivered March 7, after a fitting introduction by fellow Arkansan Mel Coleman, North Arkansas Electric Cooperative CEO and former NRECA president.

“A lot of people call Arkansas the Diamond State,” Coleman says. “We have a real gem with us this morning. She is truly a wonderful young lady. … I’ve had the privilege of watching (Rukaya) present, and I could not be prouder to have her to represent our state of Arkansas, but also represent the young men and young women on this stage and all of us.”

In Rukaya’s own words…

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.

From left: Proud parents Dr. Adnan Alrubaye and Dr. Hawraa Alzouwain pose with their daughter, Rukaya Alrubaye, retired U.S. Lt. Col. “Grandpa” Barney Morris and North Arkansas Electric Cooperative CEO Mel Coleman.
From left: Proud parents Dr. Adnan Alrubaye and Dr. Hawraa Alzouwain pose with their daughter, Rukaya Alrubaye, retired U.S. Lt. Col. “Grandpa” Barney Morris and North Arkansas Electric Cooperative CEO Mel Coleman. Photo Courtesy of Nreca

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.

Coming to America

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.

Back in Iraq

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.

The Cooperative Connection

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 Ozarks 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.

Ozarks Electric Cooperative’s 2022 Youth Tour delegates Haley Person, Rukaya Alrubaye and Janet Fu tour George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Photo by Chance Allmon

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.

Rukaya would like to extend special thanks to Dr. Martin Schoppmeyer, founder and superintendent of Haas Hall Academy, for his support of Arkansas students.