Rama Youssef was a sixth-grader in Damascus when Syria’s deadly and destructive civil war erupted in 2011.
For a year, she lived in a warzone, passing through checkpoints under the watchful eye of armed militia and growing accustomed to the sound of gunfire in the distance. When bombs started to fall close to Youssef’s school, her mother decided it was time to flee.
“It was really horrific and only getting worse,” she said. “We were scared.”
She came to the United States to live with her older sister, who is married to a Syrian-American, in San Diego. With her mother seeking asylum in Germany and her father still trapped in their war-torn country of origin, Youssef settled in her new country alone without knowing a word of English.
Now 18, Youssef said she largely raised herself, first in Southern California, then in Portland, Ore.
Despite learning English and achieving good grades, the teenage refugee felt college was out of reach. Her family couldn’t afford tuition, and because of her immigrant status (she’s here on a temporary permit) she’s unable to qualify for student loans.
But when her high school in Oregon put on a college fair this fall, Youssef felt drawn to Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. She had one question for the CLU representative.
“Do you consider people like me?” she said.
The rep assured her that her refugee status wouldn’t hinder her prospects.
To her surprise, her application was accepted in December. But more importantly, CLU awarded Youssef its first-ever International Leaders Scholarship—essentially a full ride, covering the $40,000 annual cost of tuition and fees.
When she called to tell her parents, they wept for joy.
“With so many hopes that they’ve lost over the years because of the war and how we all got separated, that’s the best news we’ve heard since the war,” Youssef said. “My dad was crying. I’ve never heard my dad cry before.”
Youssef’s scholarship was made possible through CLU’s participation in the Institute for International Education’s Consortium for Syrian Higher Education in Crisis. The association connects Syrian students whose education was disrupted as a result of the war to a network of more than 80 U.S. universities.
CLU joined the group last year after a recent graduate, Kellie Warren, urged university President Chris Kimball to do more to help Syrian refugees. Warren had been collecting signatures for Books Not Bombs, a student-led initiative to petition universities to extend scholarships to Syrian students. Books Not Bombs put CLU in contact with the consortium.
Warren, who graduated from CLU in 2017 with a degree in English, said she’d been touched by images of the unfolding crisis in Syria.
“This seemed like such an effective way to make an impact,” she said. “Even if it’s just one or two refugees at a time, it’s an important thing for someone to say, ‘You can come here, you can be safe, you can change your life.’”
Dane Rowley, CLU’s director of international admission, said Youssef was selected for the scholarship—which is funded entirely by the university—because of her fortitude to succeed in the face of dire circumstances.
“The biggest thing is her incredible enthusiasm for learning and for her future and the resilience that she has that’s clear when you first start talking to her,” he said. “She’s overcome global as well as personal setbacks.”
Rowley said the university would like to offer more scholarships to Syrian refugees. Ultimately, he said, he looks forward to the day when Syria’s civil war ends and large-scale violence no longer forces its brightest minds to flee across international borders.
Youssef is an aspiring dentist who plans to major in biology. She is the first person in her family to attend college and she said the future she envisions now looks a lot different from the life she imagined as a child in Syria.
“I didn’t know if I had everything it takes, but I did have a story,” she said. “CLU is going to help me make my dreams come true.”