NORTH CANTON, Ohio — The road to a college graduation can be a long one, but none perhaps longer than the route taken by Dilafruz “Dilia” Samadova.

When Samadova was 21, she fled an arranged marriage in Tajikistan, a small country in Central Asia.

“I met my husband on my wedding day,” she said.

Through friends, and with help from the American embassy, Samadova escaped, getting a divorce and securing an American work visa while applying for asylum.

A network of Catholics in Ohio, including several in Stark County, have enabled her to rebuild her life and attend Walsh University. Samadova, now 30, recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

“More than blood, the people I’ve met here, the people who’ve helped me, have become my family,” she said.

In addition to school, Samadova works two jobs, including one as a teacher’s aide at Our Lady of Peace Catholic School in Canton. She also is preparing for graduate school at Walsh.

“I want to work with children as an intervention specialist,” she said.

Raised in a strict Muslim household, Samadova converted to Catholicism after emigrating to Ohio in 2011; yet another reason why she says she can never return to Tajikistan.

“It’s a very patriarchal country,” she said. “My mother, my four sisters, all live the same way, with no rights. As soon as I graduated from high school, I was married. My father didn’t allow us to go to (college). But I always wanted to go to school.”

Samadova said the marriage, which was arranged when she was 15, drove her to a desperate act.

“I tried to live like my mom told me, but it got abusive, physically and emotionally,” she said. “I tried to commit suicide. After that, the choice was to go to an asylum or return home. I was scared to go back home. I had shamed my family. I guess God guided me and gave me the courage. I don’t know how I did everything.”

Samadova, whose native tongue is Farsi, didn’t speak English upon arriving in the U.S. Her first stop, New York City, brought culture shock.

“I remember crying constantly, but people were so good,” she said. “I had a dictionary, trying to communicate.”

Upon arriving in Ohio, Samadova said, she worked as a hotel housekeeper in Marblehead Peninsula, a tourist area along Lake Erie.

“The only English I knew was ′pillowcase, blanket, sheets and boss,’” she said, laughing. “I learned by myself. I bought an iPhone and listened to TV.”

She took a second job, cleaning a house for Mamie Kolar, an Italian immigrant.

“She’d say the rosary every day, and tell me about Jesus,” Samadova said. “I didn’t know anything about him. In Tajikistan, there are no churches. Either you’re a Muslim or you’re not. She was very loving.”

Samadova started accompanying Kolar to Mass and enrolled in a parish Bible class. She studied for two years before deciding to become a Catholic.

Kolar died in 2013, but a son and daughter-in-law served as Samadova’s godparents.

They encouraged her to enroll in Terra State Community College in Fremont. She earned an associate degree in early childhood education and saved enough money to buy her first car.

Samadova said she had hopes of attending Bowling Green State University but learned she didn’t qualify for financial aid.

At a Mass at a church in Port Clinton, someone shared Samadova’s story. Jerry Pellegrino, owner of Pellegrino’s Music Center in Jackson Township, happened to be in the audience.

Pellegrino gave the priest his phone number with an offer to help Samadova attend Walsh through the Pellegrino Family Endowed Scholarship.

The Pellegrinos have been steadfast supporters of Walsh and were instrumental in bringing St. Mother Teresa to the campus in 1982.

But Samadova was skeptical.

“He offered to pay for my school. Who does that?” she said, laughing. “I didn’t believe it. I called the priest and asked him, ′Is this guy real?’”

But her friends kept urging her to contact Pellegrino.

She gave in. She arrived at Walsh on a Sunday in 2017 and was in class that Monday.

Currently, she resides with two nuns, including Sister Karen Lindenberger, who is director of the Hispanic ministry at St. Anthony/All Saint Catholic Church in Canton.

“Dilia is a delightful person,” Lindenberger said. “She is very open to learning new things, loves to have a good time, is an amazing student, and has lots of endurance and determination to study hard and, for that reason, did very well in all her classes. Dilia is a beautiful person — inside and out. She loves her teaching ministry and her kindergartners love her.”

Monsignor Lewis Gaetano, pastor at Christ the Servant parish, which oversees Our Lady of Peace School, said Samadova is inspiring.

“Dilia’s presence is an absolutely transformative one for the lives of our young kindergarten students,” he said. “Each day she walks in our school, allowing her enthusiasm and passion to overflow from a heart that touches the life of each child.”

Samadova said she eventually would like to work for an organization such as the United Nations or Peace Corps to help girls stay in school.

She noted while she has some contact with her four sisters, communication with her parents is less frequent; they’re still upset and angry about the divorce.

“Nobody ever does that. Nobody does that without permission,” she said. “My sisters are happy for me, though they have the same lifestyle as my parents do now. My mother still wants me to come home. My father has disowned me, which I’m OK with because I understand the culture. I forgive him for that.”

Samadova hopes to inspire other women facing challenges.

“Keep trying, keep fighting. It’s a country of opportunity,” she said. “Believe God will guide you. I know it’s hard, but if you’re trying, you will get it. I could have given up. I came here by myself. Fifteen people are coming to my graduation. I have so many people who helped me; more than my real family.”

As she prepares to enter graduate school, Samadova said Pellegrino, his wife, Becky, and the endowment have changed her life.

“He doesn’t want credit for anything,” she said. “He says everything we have comes from God. I told him, ′I hope I can become 5% of the person you are, someday.’”

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