Majed Abdulsamad’s last day as a student in Syria ended with his assault and arrest, after he took part in an anti-government protest that was violently suppressed.
Other students, loyal to the country’s ruling party, had been given guns and the authority to stop the hundreds-strong protest that Damascus University later pretended had never happened. They put Abdulsamad in a holding pen. After he was released and sent home, Abdulsamad received notice that he was being expelled for “disrupting the order” on campus. He would soon be required to enlist in Syria’s army, his name registered at transit checkpoints as someone who should be immediately detained.
With less than a month to spare, and with the help of a scholarship program, he left for the United States to enroll at Illinois Institute of Technology.
“There were students who had to leave at once or they’d be captured and put in jail. I was able to get out,” Abdulsamad (ARCH ’16) says.
He wasn’t alone: Abdulsamad was one of 40 Illinois Tech students who received a Presidential Scholarship (now expanded into the undergraduate Transfer Leadership Scholarship), which paid for their tuition, room, and board. The program—a joint effort with Jusoor, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocating for furthering Syrian education—focused on individuals fleeing conflict overseas.
But Abdulsamad thought about the others left behind. He knew that, in the aftermath of the Syrian revolution and later, in its civil war, millions had been impacted, with many institutions of higher learning there in literal ruin. He and three other Syrian students at Illinois Tech talked about this frequently as they gathered in an apartment in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood to play Trex, a card game they knew from back home.
"As someone whose life was transformed through education, I wanted to empower others to have the same opportunities."
Finally, one night in 2015, the four—Abdulsamad, George Batah (BA ’15), Toufik Simo (BA ’16), and Abed Arnaout (EE ’14)—set the cards aside, and after hours of lively discussion, committed themselves to help. The joint scholarship program that had brought them there had enough funding to last for only a couple of years. So, they founded the Syrian Youth Empowerment Initiative to at least partially address the gap, seeking out Syrian students who hoped to study abroad—particularly those who had been displaced or were living under troubling conditions.
“It was a great opportunity made available to us, and we wanted to do the same for others,” Abdulsamad says. “Access to education, especially higher education, became a luxury in Syria after thousands of schools and universities were bombed and reduced to rubble. Despite the helplessness that the war brings, we were in a place to contribute to a better future through access to education, and so we went for it.”
Batah, who is now SYE’s executive director, adds, “As someone whose life was transformed through education, I wanted to empower others to have the same opportunities.
“More importantly, we at SYE wanted to contribute to the development of the human capital of the conflict countries we serve, so they can build their countries when the time comes,” Batah says.
Knowing how many Syrians used Facebook, the group started a page that has since been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. They didn’t have grant money to squander, so they started out by helping with logistics. They advised students on how to choose schools, apply for them, and find outside financial aid. Over the years, they garnered some donations, enough to cover students’ examination fees.
But more importantly, they accumulated volunteers. At first, fellow Syrian nationals wanted to help; then, colleagues and friends from Illinois Tech and elsewhere stepped up. To date, they’ve had more than 100 mentors volunteer since 2015—including 15 from Illinois Tech—and have helped more than 350 students apply to college. Currently, they are working with approximately 120 of them.
“SYE has changed my life in every way and was there to help me achieve an impossible dream,” student Abdullah Bannan says, in a written statement. Bannan grew up in the war-torn city of Aleppo, moved with his family multiple times to avoid bombings, and with SYE’s guidance was accepted into Harvard University in 2019.
Through a grant from the New York-based Catalyst Foundation several years ago, SYE’s services were expanded to cover Iraqi students wanting to flee conflict as well. Those involved in the program don’t apply just to U.S. colleges; they’ve applied to institutions in Mexico, France, Canada, Egypt, and Lebanon.
In addition to his work with SYE, Abdulsamad is an architect and urban planner for Global Designing Cities Initiative in New York. When asked whether he’d return to Syria someday, he remembers the work it took getting out, and wonders.
Prior to the protest that got Abdulsamad expelled, he says that pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were being placed in every university hallway and room in the country. A friend in the registrar’s office had to send him his transcript in secret. Damascus’s airport and the U.S. embassy had closed, so he had to travel to Lebanon and to secure his passport and visa in a mere two months.
“If I was to play the hypothetical game, I would want to go back if and when it was safe for me to do so without being persecuted for my views,” Abdulsamad says.
“But until then, I’ll help as many who are there as I can.”