Palestinian Roots, Syrian Home, U.S. Destination

Four years ago, on the roof of my family’s old house in Yarmouk Camp—home to more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees in southern Damascus—I was studying for my last undergraduate exam. I was barefoot and tired of listening to myself read aloud from a thick textbook titled Media Planning.

I really shouldn’t have been walking on that roof. It was no longer safe. The war was raging. Snipers were on the neighboring rooftops. I was not sure if they could see me walking in circles and reciting my lessons. But my home was crowded. My aunt and her family had taken refuge with us after an artillery shell had landed in their living room. Eventually my family had to flee our house after rebels overran the neighborhood.

Now I am no longer in Yarmouk or even Syria. I am thousands of miles away in New York City in a neat Columbia University dorm in Upper Manhattan. Was I thinking of this place four years ago? Was I hoping to study in one of the best journalism schools in the world? While I was forcing myself to drink all those warm pots of tea to stay awake to study, was I thinking of the hot American coffee in my future?

I wasn’t even dreaming of New York.

Over the past year, I’ve written in Al-Fanar Media about my frustration over failing to gain admittance to a master’s degree program in the United States. I also reported on the dearth of scholarships for Syrian refugees seeking to flee Syria and continue their education. At the time, I wasn’t one of them.

Then, a year ago, I was filled with sadness as I prepared to try again for an American graduate school. A year had passed since I moved to Germany. I was working as a journalist and learning new things every day, including German, a difficult language, and the new, tough German work standards. I was changing gradually. The way I looked and spoke, how I thought. But my plan was the same. I wanted to earn a master’s degree.

I spent hours and hours over a year researching programs and how to pay for them. I spent even more time applying for these programs. From my many rejections, I realized that I needed to improve my application. English was the most obvious problem.  I spent August 2015 in a library in Berlin completing mock reading tests and memorizing new words to build my vocabulary. I met a 70-year-old British man online who helped improved my spoken language. “You use the word ‘like’ a lot,” he told me. Thankfully, my tests scores were much higher the second time around.

I started building up my portfolio as a journalist, working for several American and German publications.

But my great advance came when I learned there is no shame in knocking on every single door for help, without being afraid of rejection.

When I looked at the requirements for Columbia’s Journalism School, I thought I would never get in.  After I was admitted, I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to afford tuition and other fees. I called the university asking for help, applied for a so-called accommodation scholarship and contacted everyone who I thought could help.

In the meantime, I had choices to make. I had applied for three different programs in Britain, Denmark and the United States. I got accepted to all three. Life never ceases to surprise when making a choice is as daunting as a lack of options. For months, I made a different decision daily about where I might go, especially because the British and Danish options involved full-funding, and the U.S. choice did not.

Still, I wanted to go to Columbia. The two other programs seemed great, to be sure. But I thought Columbia would be more intense. A close journalist friend who had lived in New York for five years told me, “If you can survive in New York, you can make it anywhere.”  I was already a survivor. I belonged there.

But I didn’t even have the money to survive for a year if I could cover school costs. An editor who was a Columbia graduate was sure that once I made my decision, money wouldn’t be an issue. I trusted her and, in what surely were the two most challenging e-mails I have written in my life, I declined the British Chevening and European Union Erasmus scholarships I had won.

Columbia winded up doubling my scholarship. I received a huge discount on the fee for my dormitory. And two amazing people donated money. It was real. I was going to New York.


In July, an American official rejected my student visa application. “You are a refugee in Germany,” said the officer at the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt. “I believe you should stay and study and live in Germany.” These decisions are usually irrevocable, and not even a judge, the U.S. congress, or the U.S. president can change them. It looked like I had reached a very discouraging dead end.

But I applied again with more support from the university, my editors and my sponsors. The second time was a charm.

Now I’m sitting in the International House on Riverside Drive studying at Columbia as I write this blog. A friend recently wrote to tell me how she was proud of me. I’m proud of myself, too. Mostly, however, I’m feeling gratitude and disbelief.


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