When she turned 18, Hourie Tafech would walk four times the length of her refugee camp just to get to and from university as she barely afforded the cost of the course books.

Twelve years later she is teaching social justice at a US university after her volunteering work in Malta with fellow refugees caught the attention of an American university dean.

But Tafech did not make it because she is the smartest refugee. It was all down to meeting the right people at the right time, she tells Times of Malta as the world marks Refugee Day.

Tafech was born and raised in Lebanon’s Ein El Helwe refugee camp after her grandparents were expelled from their home in Safed, Palestine, during the 1948 Nakba.

Although Palestinians are allowed to live outside camps, of which there are 12 in Lebanon, not many afford to do so. And her family is not allowed to return to Palestine: there are more than seven million Palestinian refugees scattered around the world because of this.

Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

'80,000 people in 1.5-square-kilometre Ein El Helwe camp'

Over 80,000 people are cramped in the 1.5-square-kilometre Ein El Helwe camp – the biggest one in Lebanon.

As a girl, Tafech often wondered about life outside the camp.

“The Lebanese government is not responsible for the safety and security of people inside the camps, and as often happens in all communities, people of different political beliefs clash. So, my childhood was full of armed clashes.

“I recall when a clash erupted during school hours, children would be let out, as schools are not responsible for children’s safety. I’ll always remember children fleeing, running towards their homes, while mothers and aunts ran in the opposite direction – towards school – in tears, searching for their children. I lost count of how many times my father had to go to school looking for me and my two younger brothers during a clash.”

Basic education within the camp is provided by the UN, but after high school, refugees are left to their own devices.

Tafech had always wanted to be an architect, but courses in architecture were only available in private universities – something she could never afford. Additionally, Palestinian refugees are not allowed to practise several professions in Lebanon.  

So, she decided to go for graphic design and while her dad questioned her persistence, her mother assured her they would “figure it out”. She found a university that gave Palestinian students a discount, and some of her uncles and aunts from abroad helped pay for the tuition of the first year of her bachelor’s degree.

But the funds ran out and she could not pursue her studies had it not been for an UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) scholarship, which she had applied for the previous year. Still, she tutored children and walked to university and back home every day to be able to afford course books and school materials.

Hourie Tafech (right) with her mother Thamana and older sister Mariam. Photo provided by Hourie TafechHourie Tafech (right) with her mother Thamana and older sister Mariam. Photo provided by Hourie Tafech

Tafech moved to Malta in 2014

After finishing her first degree, Tafech moved to Malta in 2014 with her now former husband. Here, she continued her studies at MCAST, where she specialised in marketing.

She also started volunteering with local NGOs and by the following year, she joined 14 other young refugees to set up the NGO Spark 15, the first refugee-led organisation in the EU that was recognised by the United Nations.

In 2016, Spark15 featured in a Times of Malta article about refugees’ challenges to access education – an article that was read by Kyle Farmbry, then dean of New Jersey’s Rutgers Graduate School Newark. 

The dean eventually visited Malta and supported Spark15. Back in the US, he invited Tafech, and Sari Albaaga and Mohamed Hassan – the two youths who had featured in the interview – to visit.

Albaaga and Hassan’s visa application was turned down, but Tafech made it to the US in April 2017. Following the visit, she applied for a PhD there, and five months later she started her doctorate in the US.

She has now completed her doctorate in global affairs and has been offered an adjunct teaching job at North Carolina’s Guilford College, where she is also the programme manager for the University’s Alliance for Refugees and At-Risk Migrants.

'Refugees start from minus 50'

Most refugees born in camps do not make it out of the camps because of their refugee status. Others, like Tafech, make it out because of what they have been through as refugees.

“I feel that the identity you are assigned – that of a refugee – shapes your whole life. It’s frustrating that it all depends on a piece of paper. I’m the same person with or without a refugee status.

“Growing up in a Palestinian camp we start from minus 50, not zero. So, when we get to zero, which is where everyone else starts from, most are already exhausted. Some are only motivated to pursue their studies as they hold on to hope that Lebanon might change laws regulating which professions Palestinians are allowed to practise.”

It does feel, however, that Palestinian refugees are always running behind. Some, cheered on by those around them, keep running to the finish line, but many give up.

'Never thought I would end up teaching in the US'

“There are a lot of refugees who are much smarter than me but do not have access to higher education. There are many things that stop refugees from pushing on, but very few that support them to move forward,” she added.

Tafech herself never thought she would end up teaching in the US.

She came close to giving up several times throughout her life. But then she would remember that she could offer hope to others, and she would strive on. She is now supporting her parents, and also one of her brothers who is pursuing medicine studies in Cuba.

“You cannot give up, if not for yourself, for those around you,” she urged fellow refugees.

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