It was about 5:00 a.m. in Gaza when Nour Al-Shaer got the news. With nervousness, she logged online to check the scholarship results – and learned she’d earned a 100% scholarship to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
Nour recalls, “As I was walking to school that day, I laughed a lot along the way. People must have been wondering, ‘What’s going on with this girl?’ I was laughing because I was so happy.”
Nour is one of nearly 130 Palestinian students who’s come to the United States for an undergraduate degree through the Hope Fund. A program of the non-profit organization AMIDEAST, the Hope Fund helps lower-income Palestinian students from Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Jordan with excellent academic records apply to U.S. schools and get the funding to attend. Much of the funding comes from scholarships granted by 50+ participating universities, for which Palestinian students compete alongside other foreign applicants. The Fund covers the rest.
The results? Many Hope Fund students are highly involved on campus, graduate near the top of their classes, attend graduate school, and dedicate their careers to nurturing Palestinian communities and society.
For example, Hussam Ibrahim attended Augustana College for undergraduate and is now pursuing a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. “One of my goals in college was to be a big part of the school,” he explains. “I didn’t have opportunities back in Lebanon to be so involved in the community, so I joined clubs and got involved on campus.” Another Hope Fund graduate now attends Stanford Medical School and a third, Hashem Abu Sham’a, is the first ever Palestinian Rhodes Scholar.
“It fills you with awe that these kids come out of the circumstances they’re in and excel as they do,” explains AMIDEAST President and CEO Theodore Kattouf, former Ambassador to Syria and the United Arab Emirates. “I have to pinch myself every day. Are these students really doing this?”
For many, though, the process of becoming a competitive applicant takes years. AMIDEAST, which has offices across the Middle East, uses a “laddering” approach to help students grow important academic skills over time. It offers programs for students to study English, learn to take tests and fill out applications, and even be an exchange student at an American high school for a year. Nour Al-Shaer had learned about the Hope Fund after doing two AMIDEAST programs out of the Gaza City office.
AMIDEAST assumed full responsibility for the Hope Fund in 2015 after serving as its in-region partner for about a decade. The Fund was founded by the late Dr. Fahim Qubain and his wife Nancy after Dr. Qubain had read a newspaper article one day about a Palestinian refugee who’d come to the U.S. for college. The Qubains sprang into action and working from their kitchen table, personally secured the first Hope Fund scholarships in 2001. They then solicited AMIDEAST as a partner equipped to mentor students abroad and help secure funding at scale.
These days, the Hope Fund graduates an increasing number of students each year but one of the biggest challenges, according to Kattouf, is funding. AMIDEAST doesn’t have an endowment to supplement the funding students get from their academic institutions, and many need around $10,000 per year more to make school possible. “We do this on faith,” he shares.
AMIDEAST is as resolved as ever to provide educational opportunities to Palestinian students. “Unfortunately these young people are tested in a way you’d hope people would never have to be tested,” Kattouf explains. “There’s a saying that what doesn’t break you makes you stronger,” Kattouf shares. “There may be truth to that based on what I see every day in these kids.”
Learn more about the Hope Fund here.