“There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.” This proverb is known in many languages around the world, and also known in the Arab region, which has gone through many tunnels.
But I think we need to reconsider this proverb. Arabs need the light inside the tunnel. The tunnel seems pitch black and infinite on many days, and if we have to wait until the end to see the light, many will be too discouraged to keep moving. A light inside the tunnel helps us in our daily life. Education can be such a light.
Over the past 12 years, I have visited Japan, several European countries, Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. I lived in the United States and Qatar, and have been living in Turkey for a year and a half. My travel has made me think that I know the world.
In high school, I enjoyed chemistry. My teacher, at Al-Ma’adi Secondary School for Girls in southern Cairo, asked me once if I was taking private lessons that helped me. When I was about to choose a school for my undergraduate studies, I picked chemistry, in the science faculty at Cairo University.
I was accepted, but just a few days before I started my studies, I realized that while I loved studying chemistry, I didn’t want to work as a scientist. There was another love competing with chemistry in my heart: my love for writing. My true wish was to become a journalist. But I couldn’t join the mass communication school because I didn’t have the necessary grades.
At that time, I met a journalist who was studying Arabic literature and freelancing for a well-known magazine in Egypt, Al-Shabab. I decided to follow her steps. I joined her faculty, the faculty of literature at Cairo University, and went to work at the same magazine for three months after I started my first academic year.
Later I moved from this magazine to work in the same organization’s daily newspaper, Al-Ahram. One year after that, I wanted to move on so I got unpaid leave from my job and traveled to the United States, with the support of my family.
I studied for one semester at Georgetown University. Then I moved to another small university to study for my MBA. But the financial crisis that hit the world in 2008 prevented me from completing my studies, so I returned to Egypt.
Six months later, I was the first Egyptian to be awarded the Knight Wallace Fellowship, a fellowship for journalists at the University of Michigan.
While I do not think of myself as remarkable, I feel reasonably well traveled and educated. Then a new experience gave me an insight into just how little I knew. I was interviewing Yemeni students inside and outside Yemen recently for Al-Fanar Media. These students were trying to complete their education against great odds, since their universities were opening and closing almost randomly. It is very difficult to flee Yemen. For students already outside Yemen, it is difficult for their families to support them or for the government to send them money.
I was humbled to hear their stories. I was humbled when I compared my experiences to the experiences of a Yemeni who aspired to be a dentist. She had traveled to Russia, mastered the Russian language, and gotten a bachelor’s degree in dentistry. Now she is finishing her master’s degree and planning to pursue a Ph.D., and supporting herself with part-time work teaching Arabic.
She went through all this while her country was experiencing tragic events, during which her father was killed. Her brother, who is also pursuing his university degree, told me: “No war, no challenges would keep us back from seeking our education.”
My passport contains the stamps of twenty countries I have visited, but I have not visited two neighbors of my country, Libya and Sudan. I was surprised to learn about four Libyan researchers who started their work in their home country and then traveled abroad to pursue their graduate education (see a related article “High-Flying Libyan Scholars in the U.S. and Canada”). I’m not used to thinking about Libya in terms of students aspiring to research and advanced degrees.
I’ve come to believe that powerful stories of individuals seeking to overcome the obstacles between them and education in high-conflict countries such as Yemen and Libya, and in other Arab countries, can create insight into the human spirit. The stories of these students will help carry us through dark days. Eventually, they will become our leaders—the light at the end of the tunnel.