June 27, 2016 — Nikita Girey-Demir knows what it's like to live on the margins. His journey from homelessness in both Russia and America to finding a home at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland, has enabled him to seek God in all things. Only a few years ago he was living out of a van, homeless with his father. Last month, he gave the commencement address to his fellow graduates at Georgetown Prep. He was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar and will begin the next chapter of his bright future at Stanford University in the fall. His story is an incredible one, and he told it best from the podium at Georgetown Prep:
In the years before my arrival at Prep, my family dissolved. Maybe dissolved is an understatement. It imploded. My mom went first. We lived in a small apartment in Russia while I was in middle school. She had been battling depression and anxiety attacks for years, but she kept working odd jobs to take care of my grandmother and me. When I was in 8th grade, it finally caught up with her. I woke up one morning to a blur of neighbors and EMT’s rushing her semi-conscious figure to a wailing ambulance outside. It was several months later that I found out she had nearly overdosed on sleeping pills that day. The doctors diagnosed her with schizophrenia, among many other labels. But because a few strangers whom I had never met and would never meet signed off, my mom disappeared from my life, confined to a mental hospital on the outskirts of our city.
My Dad heard the news and moved back from China. As 8th grade came to a close, he began thinking about where I should go for high school. He had many theories and ideas. Somehow he decided that Bulgaria, the geographic center of the world in his skewed opinion, would be best. So, with the few savings he had, we bought the cheapest car we could find, a1972 Lada Jiguli, and set off. It was a road trip with all the freedom and adventure and excitement that a proper road trip should have. We traveled across Western Russia and Eastern Europe, sleeping and eating out of the car and spending lots of time on the long drives talking and bonding. But mechanical failures, detours, and border crossing issues stretched out a monthlong trip into a yearlong journey, so that when we finally arrived in Bulgaria in the spring, both my dad and I were exhausted. It was time to settle down, or so I thought. But the pressure of settling down and relinquishing the freedom of travel paralyzed my dad. He struggled to come up with a plan for us. Since we were American citizens, I urged my dad to take us back to the States. Here I hoped I could get the best education and eventually attend an American college. And after weeks of persuasion, dad finally bought the plane tickets.
When we landed in D.C., we jumped around between friends' couches, then to an unused tennis court shed, then to a tent hidden in Fort Reno Park, then to more friends' couches. My dad kept saying the whole time that he would teach tennis or do something, until he changed the plan again and decided to buy a used Chevy van and sleep out of it — for the entire school year. That was enough for me. I wasn’t only concerned about the humiliation of being nearly homeless for over a year, or the lack of comfort — showering in park drinking fountains at night, living in the library during the day, sleeping with the windows rolled up in July heat to "blend in." I was more concerned that Dad didn't talk anymore. He avoided the question of starting high school, or college, or even finding a place to stay. So I reached out to friends, reached out to the social services, reached out to the private boarding schools in the area. One day, while practicing at a public tennis court in D.C., an old friend introduced me to Juan Jaysingh, a Prep alum who was then the assistant tennis coach. Juan introduced me to Coach Mackinnon and headmaster Jones, who ultimately made the decision to accept me into the Prep community. And through Prep they introduced me to Dick and Jane Stoker, who selflessly offered to take me under their wing.
What I found was a family. The first day I walked into Boland and saw all the dorm parents smiling, the first day I walked into chemistry class and you guys let me join in the conversation as if I had always been a part of it, I realized I was part of a new family. Mr. Jones had talked about the Prep brotherhood, but I never imagined it would extend to the entire Prep community. There was Mr. Lewis asking about how my court cases would go after I missed days of school. There were the life discussions with Dfern as we stayed up hours past lights out, the tennis balls hit after practice with Kyle Bonner and the Ziemskis, and the comforting feelings of texting Brian Dolan at midnight and realizing that neither of us had started that English paper due the next morning. And, when my Dad was diagnosed with schizophrenia two years ago, I found solace in the dorm rooms of Austin, Fullard, Kovalev, Harry, Brian, Theo. I found strength walking through the quad and hearing Sean Clark’s always enthusiastic voice yell “Nikita!”
You all accepted me into a family that I could only dream about before I came to Prep. Thank you, because for the past three years you have become my brothers, my parents, my role models ... my home ... my family. I’m so grateful for this bond, because I don’t think I could have come so far and made it to this moment without you. And no matter how far away we go, college and post-college, I hope we will always be able to return here and remember this family.
In the midst of all this caring, all this inclusion, I found God waiting for me in the conversations we had, in the stories we shared, in the community we formed. Watching you guys band together around each other when sudden death took loved ones from us taught me the meaning of family that I felt I had never learned growing up. And through the empathy and compassion I felt I saw God. We are all part of God’s family, a family that includes us sitting here. Includes the men and women lying homeless in D.C., and the children surviving in bombed-out Afghan cities. Includes the poor and the wealthy. Includes the hungry and the fed. We are all children of God.
I know something about living life on the margins, about waking up in the mornings hungry and not knowing how I’ll fix that. And I’ve met people in those situations. The homeless men down at McKenna Center whom we served breakfast and lunch to over the summer. The Russian family who brought out hot soup and some old blankets from their farmhouse when my father and I were shivering in a thunderstorm parked outside. And let me tell you, after traveling around the world, and coming here, I’ve learned that we are not so different from one another. Step into a stranger’s shoes, and he ceases to be a stranger. Through empathy and compassion we can break down the walls that separate us. We share stories with each other and form families, whatever shape those families may take.
As members of God’s family we are responsible for each other. We take care of each other. We must share the love we have for each other with the entire world. We must have the courage to embrace the stranger. There are problems to be fixed, opportunities to be taken, adventures to be had. There are people out there in profound need, whose stories we have yet to hear. Let’s go listen. Let’s go learn. Let’s go make a difference. In the words of our beloved former Headmaster Mr. Jones, “Let’s go to work.”