When she takes the stage at her graduation from William Paterson University on May 31, Racha Ahmad will share her remarkable story of fleeing war in Syria, finding asylum in the U.S. and working full time to support her family while earning exemplary grades.
“I am living testimony that if given just an ounce of opportunity, you can do anything,” Ahmad, the undergraduate student speaker, will say in her speech to the class of 2023.
Her inspiring story does not stop there.
Ahmad, 26, of Wayne, will graduate alongside her mother, Stani Hajbi, who went back to school to study accounting. Both are overjoyed, not just because of how their lives have changed, but also because, in the crowd, Ahmad’s father will be looking on.
They had been apart for nine years until this month, when he finally secured a long-awaited visa to the U.S. in time for graduation.
“Not seeing my father for over eight years, it’s amazing that he will be here to witness my mom and myself receiving our diplomas,” said Ahmad.
The mother and daughter, both graduating cum laude, will flip their graduation tassels at the commencement ceremony at the Prudential Center in Newark in a class of 1,600 undergraduates. Gov. Phil Murphy will serve as commencement speaker. Another 900 William Paterson students received doctoral and master’s degrees at a ceremony on May 18.
The mother and daughter feel grateful for the chances they’ve been given — chances they know many of their fellow Syrians have not been afforded in the turmoil of a brutal war.
The family had lived in Damascus, the Syrian capital, where Hajbi’s husband worked in the Customs Department and his wife stayed home to care for their four children. When war broke out in 2011, they could hear the bombings in the distance and feared for their safety.
“It was scary,” said Hajbi, 52. “When I send my kids to school, all the time, I said ‘Oh, my God.’ You never know what might happen.”
In 2014, the family went to Lebanon and secured tourist visas to travel to the United States, where Hajbi had family in North Jersey. Her husband, Bassam Ahmad, stayed behind in Syria to take care of his ailing father.
They rented an apartment in Wayne, living off savings in their first year, and filed for asylum. With their application pending, Ahmad studied at Passaic County Community College, and in 2020, she enrolled at William Paterson University.
Ahmad worked at a QuickChek store near the Wayne campus from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then headed to her classes. During breaks, she would duck into the David & Lorraine Cheng Library to study. Her earnings went to support her family and pay tuition.
“This country changed me a lot,” she said. “It pushed me to be independent. I got to be hardworking, to be a supporter, to be a producer.”
Hajbi also worked at a QuickChek branch and as a substitute teacher in Paterson. With a two-year accounting degree in Syria, she enjoyed teaching math. But she wanted to do more to achieve financial security, so she also enrolled at William Paterson.
“Believe it or not, if someone told me 10 or 15 years ago this was going to happen, I never would believe it — to go to a new country, start a new life, apply to college and graduate with my daughter,” she said.
Dreaming of the future
When the family went to Lebanon, they were part of a massive wave of Syrians seeking refuge outside their country. More than 14 million Syrians have fled their homes since 2011, including 6.8 million who were internally displaced, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Despite anti-refugee rhetoric aired by some elected officials and organizations in the U.S., the family said they were welcomed warmly in New Jersey. Relatives and neighbors showed them around the area and helped with errands, like driving Hajbi’s sons, now ages 12, 17 and 20, to school.
University officials aided them with enrollment, financial aid and scholarships.
When she finished classes, a regular customer at QuickChek hired Hajbi for an accounting job at her printing company.
Ahmad, an English and political science major, said she “enjoyed every moment” of campus life, including studying and going to class. Yet, because of her demanding work schedule, she didn’t have time for campus clubs and activities.
But she was still noticed. Faculty and administrators at the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences — one of five academic colleges at William Paterson — nominated and voted for her to be the class speaker.
Wartyna Davis, the college dean, said Ahmad embodies the character of a William Paterson graduate and has an inspiring story and global perspective
“Racha’s dedication as a student and, perhaps most of all, her overall spirit have not gone unnoticed on campus,” Davis said. “She is happy to be at William Paterson University, to be learning, to do the work; she is grateful for our campus community and especially for the teachings and support of our wonderful faculty in a palpable way. We are equally grateful to have a student like her representing us all.”
Ahmad will enter a enter a master’s program in public policy at William Paterson. Her dream is to work in foreign affairs for the United States, she said.
Her mother is proud of her daughter’s dedication to school and family and looking forward to the next stage of their lives.
“I am so happy and so thankful,” Hajbi said. “Really, America is a dream, and it’s a really great country to live in and start a new life.”