Harvard grad surmounts Gaza blockade, begins PhD program
This article was originally published in Palestine in America’s second annual print issue. Buy a copy here
Abderhman Abuhashem is a Gaza native who had big dreams and the tenacity to reach them.
Originally from the small village of Yibna, Abuhashem’s grandparents were forced to leave their home behind in 1948 and ultimately settled in a refugee camp in Gaza, where Abuhashem’s parents met and he was born in 1994. As a child, Abuhashem knew he wanted to attain a world-class education and pursue a degree in medicine, but was living in conflict-ridden Gaza City with limited resources to match his drive. Now, a graduate of Harvard College, Abuhashem proves that with the willingness and determination to excel, anything is possible.
Palestine in America discussed growing up in Gaza, Abuhashem starting his MD/PhD program in New York and what it was like coming to the United States.
PiA: Describe attending public school in Gaza.
AA: From the first grade until the ninth grade, I attended a United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It is the United Nations arm that cares for the Palestine refugees [in the Near East]. Even though these schools are essentially for the refugees, the classes have a lot of students, usually about 50 students in a class. I was able to get a good amount of support from my teachers when I started to be distinguished academically at a pretty young age, like second or third grade. That really helped shape my personality and my love for education and my commitment to excellence.
Following the ninth grade in Gaza Strip the system is, there are no more refugee schools or UN schools for high school. Everyone goes to a public school, or a private school. So I went to a public school. The public school that I went to was a little bit special, in the sense that it only takes students who have GPAs of 90 percent or higher. So it collects pretty elite and excellent type of students in one place and it’s called Madrasat (School of) Yasser Arafat. That school did not have anything special because of the environment in Gaza and the lack of resources. But all it did, is that it collected a lot of smart students in one place and that made some sort of very competitive environment that pushed these students to be creative in their own means. A lot of us were doing amazing things in programming and coding; a lot of us did amazing stuff in student government and things on the level of the Ministry of Education. A lot of people did great things in community service, and it was just a highly charged environment where students were pushed to do good things.
So that environment pushed me to excel academically and also in student government, I served on the student parliament for two years. That was the normal education that I got. Besides that, my family always wanted me to excel more in the English language. So I had a little bit of teaching outside of school to get stronger with the English language and be able to apply to universities in the United States.
PiA: When you started applying to universities, was there ever a worry that you may not be able to leave Gaza?
AA: Absolutely. I mean this worry stayed with me until the moment that I got out of the border, or the checkpoint that I had to go through to leave Gaza. Like any student in the Gaza Strip, a lot of smart students who can get admissions and get offers from several elite institutions in the world, we all have the same fear of not being able to exit. I had that worry all the time after I got my admissions.
PiA: How did you finance your education?
AA: I was really lucky to receive and full scholarship from Harvard that covered all my tuition and personal expenses. So that removed a huge burden off my parents and my shoulders, that I didn’t worry about financing my education through college. That was actually a pretty big determinant of why I decided to come to Harvard.
PiA: Can you speak more to the culture shock that you experienced?
AA: I came from a place where I essentially lived all my life with my family, surrounded by a predominantly Muslim population, having a very specific mindset and tradition. So I came here and I found myself in a room by myself and I had to make new friends with different traditions, religions, and so on. It was pretty scary at the beginning, I would say, and especially adding to the fact that I had pretty weak English language skills. I had never been to an English-speaking school or environment. Even though I took some English courses back home and our English curriculum at the school was strong, I was still not equipped enough to be thrown into a place like Harvard College from the start.
But it was pretty amazing how, after like 6 months, you start getting used to the environment, you start finding new things to share with the people who you are around. I started to find people who are interested in the same academic interests that I have. I found people who are interested with justice causes like the ones I’m interested in. I found more Muslims, and people who are interested to learn more about it [Islam]. So I think that added a new angle that I’ve never been exposed to before back home. It was a pretty big culture shock at the beginning, but it turned out after that to be a very nice and diverse experience.
PiA: What’s a piece of advice you would give to kids in Palestine who aspire to come to America, or elsewhere, to further their education?
AA: I would encourage everyone to take their chance. Invest in your education and in yourself, and take your time with opportunities. Just try, and I’m sure that if anyone tries they’ll get somewhere at some point. We need representatives in the world to give a better picture of Palestinians who are excelling in their fields.
PiA: Who of your family is in America, and who is still in Gaza?
AA: I have 3 brothers and 2 sisters. Two of my siblings are now in the United States. One of them, my older brother, who attended MIT is currently working with Apple in California. And I have a younger brother who is in his first year at Stanford. We are the only three in the United States.
PiA: What did you study at Harvard, and how long did it take you to figure out what you wanted to do?
AA: So I came [to America] with a pretty traditional mindset that I wanted to go into the medical field. I realized how hard it is for an international student to get a medical education in the United States, and that sort of pushed me to look at other professions. I got into research pretty early on. I joined this lab during my freshman year and it was pretty amazing how I stayed with the same lab until my senior year, including the summers, with funding from Harvard and other institutions. It is the same lab that I produced my senior thesis in and it is the lab that made me essentially choose my concentration, or my major at Harvard, which is Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology. It is a major that is concerned about studying primarily the idea of stem cells and how we can use this new tool in biology to treat degenerative diseases in several organs in the human body.
It was such a revolutionary idea and getting to research that really pulled me in and made me get into this field, and I really liked it. So my vision sort of evolved from instead of just a doctor, I wanted to be a researcher in the biomedical field. So I applied for MD/PhD programs and I was lucky to get into a really good program that I will be attending starting this July, it’s a collaboration between Cornell University, Rockefeller University, and Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute.
PiA: Was it easy for your parents to come visit you? How were your first years in America?
AA: One of the things I didn’t think about before getting out of Gaza was the idea of visiting family, and family visiting me, and how much I would miss home. I grew up in Gaza and I lived my life there, so you can imagine the culture shock and the homesickness that I was exposed to. I was shocked when I came here that visiting is extremely hard, for me to go back home and also for my family to come here. So for like the first year, all of it, I wasn’t able to visit home. And in the beginning of that year, in November, there was an attack that happened in Gaza for two weeks and it was really frightening for the first time to be away from home and you know that something horrible is happening there. So the whole first year was an extremely challenging year in terms of language, in terms of keeping up with academics, homesickness, and the idea of not being able to visit family or go back home.
My father works for an American NGO and he comes here once a year for his work, and he was the only one who was able to come visit me once a year. I was able to go back home after that first year [of college] and it was pretty amazing that I was able to do that. I visited for 3 weeks, and then I was told that my permit was over and I had to leave. It’s been 3 years and I haven’t been able to go back home. This is the first time my whole family has been able to come to America for my graduation [from Harvard].