Immigration odyssey forms winning essay
Peter Hanhan was having a "crazy" week at school with midterm exams. So it's understandable that he almost didn't enter the 2012 Breaking Barriers essay contest.
The ninth-grader from Bloomingdale High School in Valrico, Fla., admitted as much.
"I was about to put the essay off to the side. I told myself, 'I don't need to do this extra thing.' And then I [said], 'Let's just get this done,' so I did it and turned it in."
And Peter doesn't regret it now. He was announced as the grand prize winner in the ninth-grade division of the essay contest. The freshman division is new in 2012 as a product of intentions to expand the Breaking Barriers program, which already has reached 20 million students worldwide.
When Peter and his English teacher at Bloomingdale High, Katie Proly, heard about the contest through a counselor, it was a no-brainer that Peter would enter.
"I instantly looked at him and he looked at me, and we knew that he had to write an essay for this," Proly recalled.
Peter certainly has a unique story to tell. A native of the West Bank, Peter and his family -- his parents and an older brother, Imad -- immigrated to the United States when Peter was five.
"[Because of] the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when I was five, Israelis occupied my city. They took over the city and they held everybody hostage and they were shooting people and blowing things up -- it was terrible. My family was held hostage. You were allowed one hour a week to go grocery shopping and then you had to go back inside or else you were killed," Peter said.
One night, Peter and his family packed two suitcases' worth of possessions and escaped to the airport in a taxi. From there, the Hanhans flew to Florida, where Peter's uncle took them in until they could get back on their feet.
"You just read Peter's essay and you are blown away," said Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson and contest sponsor. "We all know about kids being in war, but when you read a first-hand account of survival in a war, it is really heart-wrenching. And he is an amazing writer.
"I absolutely loved it, and what was amazing is that all eight of the judges had Peter as their top winner. He was so far above everyone else that there was really no discussion about anyone else."
Proly also had plenty of praise for her student.
"He is so mature and wise beyond his years. He puts his entire heart and soul into everything here at school. I can't say enough good things about him," Proly said.
And she's sure happy Peter won, too. Proly is a huge baseball fan -- her uncle and cousin even played professionally. When Amin and Gloria Hanhan saw what a baseball fan Proly was, they instantly agreed that Proly should accompany their son to the World Series.
And as for Peter? The prize he's most looking forward to is the laptop computer. He says he will use it to communicate with his family back on the West Bank via Skype.
Peter insisted that he's "just a normal kid. I'm not that special."
Debatable, considering Peter wrote the following in his winning essay: "Both Jackie and I realized that life, no matter the challenges, requires strength, determination, and courage to be lived. Life really is a gift. Every experience is a lesson, and every day, every smile and hug, every laugh, every tear, every morning sun, every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every life needs to be faced with courage and cherished with a smile."
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.