Education: the Palestinian passport

Hamid El-Darwich | 23-03-2017

 

In 2014, like all engineering students attending Lebanese American University, I transferred to the Byblos campus, in the north of the country, from Beirut.

I lived in Beirut my entire first year; it was tough for me to be two hours away from my parents. I used to visit home on the weekends and bring food prepared by my mom back to campus on a weekly basis. I’d keep the food in the refrigerator and microwave what I needed to eat each day. However, in Byblos, I was three to four hours away from my parents, depending on the traffic. The roads are congested most of the time in Lebanon; in addition, cracks and potholes are found all over.

Hamid (far right) and two of his engineering friends

As a result, once I was in Byblos, I visited my parents only a month. Since the fall of 2014, I have stayed in the dorms, which are comfortable compared to what I had in Beirut. However, the transition to a new campus was a struggle during the first semester, especially since my schedule was loaded with 19 credit hours of courses. I started avoiding classes, chatting with friends until after midnight even on exam days.

I have learned that you often don’t know you’ve dug yourself into a hole when you are in it. So, I didn’t realize my life was out of control. I stopped going to the gym and I only ate in restaurants. Once, I attended class without bringing my book and calculator. The professor asked me to leave, and from that moment on, I stopped attending all classes.

Then my grades were posted. My GPA had dropped to 1.98 out of 4, and I received a warning from UNRWA that my scholarship would be discontinued if I didn’t change. At first, I hid the grades from my parents and friends, but then I told them and I knew there was no one who could help but me.  In December, I rented a room nearby so I could be alone. I sat for hours trying to figure out what had gone wrong. I knew it was too late to fix my grades; I had always been first in class in high school, but college was different.

By coincidence, I was reading the Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” during that period. I decided then that I had to begin a new chapter in my life and "rage against the dying of the light." I reminded myself that If I graduated with a low GPA, then I would have no chance of going on to earn my masters or even finding work in Lebanon because I am a Palestinian refugee. We are prohibited from holding many jobs and we are paid less for many others.

I set a detailed, daily schedule for myself, which I follow precisely until this day. I stopped skipping classes and started sitting in the first row to pay more attention. The following spring, I took a class in stress analysis that changed my life once again; I “found” myself in this marvelous field and decided I would study more, improve my GPA and travel to the United States for my PhD. (Stress analysis determines the strains in materials and structures when subjected to forces—critical to the design and maintenance of bridges, dams, tunnels, etc.)

Hamid (second from right) with one of his inspiring professors (to his right)

On February 13, I started chatting with a girl from my high school named Demi. She told me I had been "the legend in our school.” I remembered how I had excelled and was shocked once again at what I had become. But I have returned to my “real me”—the Hamid who loves education for its intrinsic value. Education has never been a road for me, it was always the destination. Demi has accompanied me in my “re-birth,” and she tells me on a daily basis, "Good morning sunshine. Send me your schedule!" She knows that study hours are holy for me, and I always assign an hour a day for us to talk.

I love Demi and the beautiful touch she has added to my life. She is both Palestinian and Bulgarian, and I always tell her we have no future in Lebanon.  If she gets a bad grade, I remind her that education is our way to the future; it's our way to rise; it's our way to save our children.

Today, my cumulative GPA is 3.87/4.0. Along with my publications, it is good enough to qualify me for the top colleges in the United States. To educate others and help them with difficulties similar to what I have faced, I have launched a YouTube channel I call, "Civil Engineering Philosophy." I teach several topics related to engineering, math and critical thinking. I receive questions from students all over the world, asking me to explain various formulas. In addition, the revenues I earn from the ads shown on my channel are fully devoted to charity. I believe this work is not about money, it's about the internal satisfaction I feel when a student in India or the U.S. understands the concept of engineering better due to my help.

I have started studying my options for PhD programs in the United States and I have chosen fracture and testing of highways as the field in which I want to specialize. My choice of this field comes from my appreciation of the need to have good roads to reduce the hours of separation between families, lovers and friends—based on my personal experience in Lebanon. This specialty is not offered at Lebanese universities, so I must travel abroad. However, I hope to return to Lebanon after my studies. I want to improve the roads in this country so that people here can travel safely and efficiently to meet their beloved ones. Will I be allowed to do so, since so many professional jobs are off limits to Palestinian refugees? I hope so.

My decision to pursue my dream of studying in the United States is a critical one in my life, and my family and Demi understand that. They cry sometimes at the thought of the distance that will separate us, but I tell them I must do it for the sake of my education.

During this semester, I am taking a steel structure course with the same professor—Dr. Caesar—who evicted me from class for not being prepared back in 2014. Now I can say he is a role model and an inspiration. He is our department chairperson, he has a lovely family, he trains in the gym every day, and he has a 16-page CV highlighting his pioneering research in the field. I now know that my eviction from class during fall 2014 was a necessity for me to wake up. Two days ago, I received my latest exam results and he told me "excellent" because I received the highest grade in my class. This "excellent" was a beautiful reward for three years of daily study and effort.

At this stage, I advise Demi to study as hard as she can so she can travel with me to the United States. She tells me she wants to be a zoologist and a pianist, and I promise her she will be both; that I will stand by her. This determination to get the best education has its roots in my early childhood; my mom is not educated and she used to work on farms in the burning sun. When she would see a cleaning lady in an apartment, she would say, "I wish I was in your place." Hence, my mom has been the source of my determination to be equipped with the education I need to choose my profession.

I promise my mother she will sit in the sun one day, with my children around her, in our beautiful country with its holy olive trees. I want Demi to be the beautiful touch and my wife in my life. That's why I tell her to work hard. I believe education is the only Palestinian passport, and it's the only way to rage against the dying of the light.

 

Posted: March 21, 2017

Mentor: Pam Bailey


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