From Palestine to the United States – Ahlam Abulaila

Life is a story about creating oneself. My life is all about my dreams and visions for the future. To define myself, I am an educated, Palestinian, multilingual, Muslim woman who finds the actual meaning of her life in pursuing her education despite all obstacles. Since childhood, I found myself in a position of responsibility.

My father died of cancer when I was only seven years old, and I was the oldest among my five siblings. It was a tough time back then, but I remembered it as if it is yesterday. Certainly as the oldest daughter, I started to help my mother, who did not marry, but tried her best to take care of my education and my siblings’ education as well. In all my school years I was always the top of my class and always received certificates of honor for my distinction. The greatest achievement that I had in the beginning of my academic life was in my High School when I was crowned as the First Top Student of Palestine in the General Secondary Examination in 1996. That success was a tremendous happiness to my mother and my family; I felt that I gifted my mother some happy moments to feel proud of herself and proud of me as well.

After this remarkable success, I decided to study English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza. I received the President Arafat Scholarship that covered all my university tuition and fees due to my academic success in Secondary School. During the four years of my undergraduate study, I proved myself to be just as distinguished; I accomplished an academic growth that was witnessed and praised by all my professors. Those professors were my lively models, and inside myself there was a vibrant wish to be a university teacher like them one day. As a great lover of reading, studying English literature sharpened that passion and bestowed me a great achievement. This distinction was honored by getting a 90.55% in my Bachelor’s degree, with also being the first top student in the English department, graduating in 2000. 

In Gaza, getting a Bachelor’s degree in English literature was not enough to be employed as a teacher. You need to have another diploma in Education. Hence, I got my diploma in 2002, applied for job, and after that became a teacher of English at high school. During my teaching career at schools, and later at university, I was an example of success to be followed by my students. Thus, I tried to positively affect my female students and let them be aware of the importance of their education in shaping their flourishing futures. I can say that I did succeed with this endeavor since I witnessed many of their success stories in front of me. I still witness their success till this moment.

At specific point of my life, my social life started to take its shape. I was married and became more responsible. I knew well how a woman can manage taking care of her husband, kids, housework and her job as well. Though managing my time was a challenge sometimes, I was able to do it in a successful way. Nothing is difficult if there is determination and will. During that hustle of my life, personal and professional, I was advised by one of my undergraduate professors to pursue my Master’s degree. He told me literally, “It is a loss if someone in your distinguished academic status does not pursue her higher education.” Undoubtedly, that day changed my life to the roots. My teacher’s speech finds its echo in both my mind and my heart. It triggers my passion and my dream of being an influential person in my society. Now, this was the chance, and I started to prepare myself to grasp it. Consequently, I did the TOEFL, applied for the Fulbright Scholarship, and got accepted in 2006.

Unfortunately, life in Gaza was not easy for anyone to get out of. It was and still is under siege. Many people got their dreams destroyed because of the harsh political situation in Gaza. I was almost about to lose my hope for getting out from Gaza to the US to have my Master’s degree. I still remember how those days were awful. I packed up everything and got ready to leave Gaza with my husband and my three kids (Anas 4 years, Saja 3 years, Shahd 6 months at that time). I cannot count how many times we went to the Rafah border to enter Egypt and then to fly to the US, only to fail. I cannot count how many times I felt humiliated and frustrated. It was not an easy thing to prepare yourself for travelling and to say goodbye to your dear ones, and then when you cannot do it, to then come back to them. It was a real torture and I was almost losing my hope especially when I knew that the semester started at the University of Montana/ Missoula where I was going to complete my Masters. Finally, I decided not to say goodbye to anybody because I was sure that I would return to them. Then one day, I prepared myself and my family and went to the Rafah crossing. Fortunately, this time we succeeded in crossing into Egypt despite all the torture we faced in our way. I cannot describe what my husband and I felt. In addition to all that border crossing suffering, we had our own fear: the fear from the unknown future in an unknown country. It was a psychological unrest; a mixture of feelings that cannot be put into words.

Rafah Border Crossing - Wikipedia
The Rafah Border can be seen in the far left corner of the image.

We entered Egypt, and the Fulbright Scholarship administration started to communicate with us. They offered their utmost help and made our travel to the US as fast as possible. Within a week, we were in Montana, and we were welcomed by some people from the International Office and some Arabs also. Their welcoming to us at the airport lessened some of our fear and we felt welcomed. The second day, I went to meet my advisor; he was a unique person in everything. He helped me not only upon my arrival but also along my two-year study and even after I returned home. I tried to be strong in front of him, even with tears in my eyes, I still managed to say, “I am okay,” with a smile. During my study in Missoula, I was also distinguished and tried to reflect that good image about Muslim women, and how they are truly supported by their husbands to pursue their education. 

The US withdraws financial support from Palestinian students - TRINITY

While I was studying at the University of Missoula, I was awarded the IPS in 2007. This scholarship was both financially and socially rewarding. Being a part of a network of women is the most fulfilling, nurturing side of receiving the IPS. It helped me to make a strong eternal connection and friendship with strong, inspiring women. Trudy Mizner, Jackie Lucasik and Sue Talbot are unforgettable, elegant names who were my allies in Missoula and with whom I am still in contact. Those women are exemplary in their belief in how a woman can take the hand of another woman, regardless of religion, color or race, and help her overcome all difficulties and obstacles. They incredibly backed me and my family during my stay in Missoula: they were always there not only for the big moments (celebrating my graduation and my son’s birth), but also for the smaller, everyday occurrences. They build me up in a society which is not my own and host me in their kind hearts as well as in their warm houses. Their strong support continued even after we returned to Gaza and here in Indiana too. The special phone calls and email messages I received during the ugly time of war proved the other beautiful face of humanity.

In 2008 in Missoula, academically, I finished my Master’s degree with a GPA of 3.94; almost entirely straight A’s. Personally, I gave birth to my fourth child Muhammad. So, during my stay in Montana, I did achieve two goals: a child and a certificate; two great accomplishments to return home with. Thus, to evaluate my visit to the US, it was an immense success at many levels: getting a degree, making connections with people, knowing another culture, and getting mature and more knowledgeable.   

In 2008, I returned to Gaza, and I applied to the same university from which I graduated. I was accepted, and I became a colleague to my previous professors. Certainly, I taught English literature with a passion and tried to mingle what I learnt in the US with what I was teaching. I taught my female students how to be real, humble, strong, and able to share yourself and touch the lives of others. At that moment I could have a full, happy, and content life. From that moment, I felt that the path I had chosen needed to be completed to the end. So, pursuing a PhD degree became my focus. For almost 8 years during my teaching at the Islamic University of Gaza, I was looking for PhD scholarships, but it was a hard search. Life became harder in Gaza: three horrendous wars happened in a sequence (2008, 2011, 2014) and destroyed everything in Gaza including the hope in the hearts of people themselves. Those wars were real human catastrophes; they were beyond description.

In 2016, I succeeded to receive the Qatar Scholarship to have my PhD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the same story of crossing borders repeated itself once again. I went through the same exact difficulty; it was even harder with my husband and my five kids at that time. Finally, we succeeded in crossing the border to Egypt. Unfortunately, this time we were unable to travel to the US within a week of our arrival to Cairo like the last travel. Since I made my departure from Gaza on the 22 of October, this meant that I lost my first semester at IUP. Thus, my admission was transferred to Spring. Accordingly, the American Embassy in Cairo told us that we could not travel now; it was only a month before my program started. The date was December the 18th, 2016. This created a great problem for me; I could not get back to Gaza because I hardly left it. So, the last decision was to stay in Egypt for two months till we can do our travel to the US on the 18th of December. We suffered but we finally did it; the whole thing needs determination. So, here we are in Indiana, PA. With my arrival, I wished this step would be a great chance toward my success and my kids’ success as well.  

Being awarded the PEO International Peace Scholarship for the second time to support my PhD study in 2018 is another milestone achievement in both my academic and personal life. Being on a tight scholarship that covers only me, the IPS money is a real blessing that lessens the financial burden and helps me sustain my living expenses. From another perspective, getting this scholarship affords me another fascinating chance to create connection with more marvelous women. I did receive many cards from many amazing women from different chapters on different occasions. However, the only chapter that visited me at my home in Indiana is Chapter AJ Greensburg. I was extremely happy to host some wonderful women from Greensburg and celebrate my 40th birthday with them. Being surrounded by those women is tremendously helpful; women like you can understand your frustrations and offer you the emotional support you need in this stage of your life. 

At this point of my third-year doctoral study, I successfully finished my coursework and passed my Candidacy and Comprehensive exams. Currently, I am in the process of writing my proposal as I am going to focus on the theme of human rights, specifically, the right to speak and narrate the Palestinian story in specific Palestinian literary works. I also have my temporary job as an editor at the Writing Center’s Graduate Editing Service, IUP. My kids are all at schools in Indiana: Anas finished his High School this year and will join IUP with the major of Pre- Dentistry; Saja will be in 12th grade, Shahd 9th grade, Muhammad 7th grade, and Hala 3rd grade. My husband is always there supporting us all. 

Today, I am very grateful for all what I have in my life. Regardless of how challenging life may be, there is always much to be thankful for. My aim is to be a better version of myself than I was yesterday; always striving to be a better educator, leader, mother, daughter, sister, and friend.

Ahlam’s Abulaila’s five children

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After reading Ahlam’s story, I took time to reflect upon how I have often taken my education for granted. I always assumed I would go to college and graduate school. My plan for education was never contingent upon having to cross several international borders or the current tumultuous political situation in my country. Ahlam’s story made me realize how greatly we should all value our education. Some people are willing to wait years in their home country that is under siege in order to take advantage of the opportunities I have been simply handed.

I was amazed, and still am, that instead of giving up her dream of education when she was unable to leave Gaza, Ahlam pursued her passion vigorously, all while being the mother to five children. In Summer 2019 when I merely crossed the border between Ceuta, Spain and Morocco on foot, I was frazzled, disoriented, and frightened by the possibility that I would not be able to leave Europe if I did not follow all of the directions for crossing precisely. I cannot begin to imagine what it was like for Ahlam and her family to be denied passage at the Rafah Border continuously, with the prospect of her education on the line. I think that everyone who reads her story will agree that Ahlam is truly a remarkable, astonishing, and inspiring woman. 

As Ahlam said, “nothing is difficult if there is determination and will.” Perhaps we can all apply this same sentiment as we tackle our own personal difficulties, but also as we collectively address the misconceptions about immigrants in our country. – Clara

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