In her part of the world, Ruba Asbahi, ’90, is unique. Actually, her life experiences make her unique wherever she goes.
“There are two cultures integrated into who I am,” she said.
Asbahi has dual citizenship in both the United States and Syria. She was born in Bowling Green, Ohio, while her parents were in graduate school. They were both international students from Syria. She lived in the U.S. until she was 6 when her family moved to Syria and then to Saudi Arabia.
Growing up, Asbahi learned Arabic and English, but she always favored English. Her parents were adamant she knew both. “They knew it would help me,” she said. She read American magazines and books in English. When it was time to think about college, she knew she wanted to come back to the States.
“I missed the States,” she said. “I wanted to reconnect with that side of me.”
Asbahi knew it was a great opportunity, but not everyone back home understood what she was doing. In Saudi Arabia, it was unusual for a girl to travel alone, let alone leave the country.
But Asbahi’s parents were both professors in Saudi Arabia and understood the importance of education and the opportunities studying in the U.S. would provide her.
“I’m also an only child and leaving your parents isn’t what most people do. It was all a challenge,” she said.
In the ’80s, international college admission was complicated, but Asbahi was determined to make it work, so she flew to the States and tried to find a college. It was harder than she thought.
“The application process was very confusing,” she said. “And most schools wouldn’t let me enroll until the spring, but I was ready to enroll immediately for the fall.”
She was in the middle of her search when a friend of her parents recommended she look at Heidelberg. She showed up, talked to the Admission Office, and walked out as an accepted student.
“I feel I was destined to study at Heidelberg.”
Asbahi played a unique role on campus. She was American, but also an international student. She had a firm grasp on American culture, languages and expectations, but she also knew the struggles and culture shock the other international students were going through. She saw a need and embraced her ability to make a difference by organizing events, helping other students navigate new customs and serving an informal liaison between international and traditional students.
“It was important for me to help other students,” she said. “I was so determined that I was going to make this work for me that I didn’t have time to get homesick.”
Heidelberg helped her realize she wanted to get involved in international relations. This desire to help bring people together is what led Asbahi to Washington, D.C., after graduating. She enrolled in Georgetown University’s Master’s of Contemporary Arab Studies and International Relations Program, hoping to alleviate cultural misunderstandings and impact education.
“It’s an issue for everyone,” she said. “And sometimes politics interferes with our perceptions of other countries. We only look at the politics and not the people of the country.”
Asbahi has lived in Syria, France and Saudi Arabia. She earned a Ph.D. in history and international relations at Damascus University, and taught at both international schools and universities. She was teaching at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia in 2011 when the Syrian crisis erupted. For Asbahi, it wasn’t just a political conflict; it was personal.
“I wanted to be there,” she said. “It was my country.”
Asbahi moved back to Syria where, after teaching at several universities, she joined the Massar Children’s Project, a non-profit that provides educational opportunities for children to build their self-confidence and develop skills through interactive exhibitions and activities. They want to empower young Syrians to contribute actively in building their futures.
Massar is one of the many organizations under the Syria Trust for Development, which oversees and raises funds for different aspects of rebuilding Syria. As the country’s crisis escalated and evolved, many communities lost their schools. That’s where the Massar Project stepped in.
The organization sets up exhibits and miniature shows. They talk to the children about science and social issues. Some fund raise for scholarships to local universities for children of martyrs and those injured in the war. Others help amputees, providing them with physical therapy, prosthetics, job trainings and funds for entrepreneurial ventures. Everything is free and open to the public.
At the children’s project, Asbahi is a content developer. She works with a team to develop educational programs and exhibits. One program empowered students by showing them they are capable of mastering new skills. Another focused on the idea of what children can do alone as well as working together.
“We want them to see they can be something when they grow up – builders, engineers, doctors – the program exposes them to so much,” she said. “We’re helping them see that it’s their right and duty to have a say in their future and their community. The kids need us now more than ever."
Asbahi hopes those with opposing views will go about bringing change in a peaceful way, and not through supporting terrorism.
“Regardless of your political views, you should want peace for your country,” she said.
Through her work with Massar, she hopes to give future generations the ability and understanding to make the world a better place. Asbahi’s experiences give her a unique voice that she uses to be a bridge between two cultures that often misunderstand each other. “I don’t live in a tent with a camel in my backyard,” she said, laughing. “I have a house with a garden and a dog. I wear the same clothes as people in the U.S. People need to be more aware of other cultures.”
As a true global citizen, it’s people like Asbahi who help bring us closer together.
“Humans are more connected than we sometimes think,” she said. “We may have different tastes and customs, but we all care about our family and friends the same way. We are all human.”