Sara Al-Zubi on Refugees, Faith, and ‘Unfiltered Me’

Sara Al-Zubi

You’re watching CNN. You’re reading The New York Times. You’re seeing a story about a tragedy on the other side of the world. What do you do?

If you’re Sara Al-Zubi, you go out and change the world. When Sara saw what was happening to women and children in Syria and around the world, like so many of us, she was astonished and appalled. She couldn’t sit idly by, so – at just 20 years old – Sara crashed full-on into the world of refugee activism. From Truman Scholar to youth ambassador to founder of multiple nonprofits, her accomplishments are impressive, but Sara’s just getting started.

Interview by Michaela Rawsthorn. Photography by Stacy Wegley.

I was struggling really hard to choose questions for this conversation because you have accomplished so much. But to start, tell us a little bit about your history and your background.

I was born in Malaysia. My parents were studying there. They just decided they were going to get another master's degree. Eventually, we moved back to Jordan.

Right around my birthday (I think I was nine), we moved to the U.S. We had moved around different cities while we were in Jordan, but we left from the capital to move to Indianapolis, Indiana, of all places.

I remember our first night: We all slept in a double bed. There were five of us. Three of us slept diagonal. The little kids slept at the foot of the bed because my parents are not that long. …

[Eventually,] we came to Cincinnati. … Now I’m finishing up at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

What are you studying? What are you doing?

I'm studying human capital management and leadership. I'm also pre-med and I have a French minor.

That’s a lot! What's your goal?

The goal from there is to go to med school, then to go on to do refugee health advocacy.

I want to have a varied education behind me. I like being a business major and I like health care. For the kind of work that I want to do – I want to start a nonprofit – the mix seemed right. I need those business skills. A lot of times people who do go into that realm (nonprofit work) tend to be struggling with finances. I was like, "Well then, I'm just going to start with the thing that people find hardest."

I actually really enjoy it. I don't agree with a lot of people in my business classes because I'm so humanitarian – like, human first; everything else second. It's been a lot of mental gymnastics, but I've enjoyed it because I think it's giving me a whole new perspective. The business background is what will help me actually do the nonprofit work. Then, I want to go to med school so I can do the health care piece. Then, of course, the group that I've worked with, and that I want to work with for the rest of my life, are refugees. You’ve got to pop the pieces together to get the bigger picture. 

Sara Al-Zubi

Tell me a little about all the refugee work you're doing. Let's start with the big one: the Truman Scholarship. Wow! How did you do that? What are you doing with it and how exciting is that?

[Author’s note: The Harry S. Truman Scholarship is a highly competitive program for college juniors who demonstrate leadership potential and a commitment to public service. The award is $30,000 toward graduate school.]

The last time Miami University had someone get a Truman Scholarship was 15 years before I applied. When my adviser suggested it, I thought he was kind, but I didn’t think we stood a chance.

I was like, “It’s been 15 years; what are you talking about?”  

He was like, "No, I actually think this could work."  

As I went into it, I thought I stood even less of chance. They seemed to be looking for people who want to dedicate their life to public service. That was something that I needed to think about. I knew I wanted to do refugee work; I just didn't necessarily know if I had the governmental mindset.

I gave them unfiltered me.

But I went for it. I did a lot of work to apply, and there were a ton of applicants. I don’t know how, but I was named a finalist. I went on to interview in Washington D.C. It was one of the coolest experiences. It was a seven judge panel. You sit across from them while they ask you a lot of questions. I gave them unfiltered me.

I feel like at the end of it, I didn't really mind if I didn't get it. I just enjoyed having a very important, thoughtful conversation about the refugee work and the changes that need to happen to better support refugees.

When I found out that I won, I was shocked. I was walking across campus when I found out. I just ran to find my adviser. Seriously, I sprinted down the street! As I ran, I called my parents. I'm screaming in Arabic. It’s a fun language. All the words come out very strong and passionate while I'm running down High Street in the middle of Oxford, Ohio. I ran all the way to the honors building. I was completely out of breath when I blurted out that I won. My adviser was like, "Sara, just sit!"

I honestly don’t know what happened. Or how I won. But that’s when it all started. The scholarship also comes with membership to the Truman Scholars Association, which creates a community of Truman Scholars and supports their intellectual, personal, and professional development. By taking part, I met all these really amazing students. They were all so bold. We had a leadership week that brought us all together. I was in awe of the people there. It's been one of the most exciting communities I could've ever imagined being part of.

Tell me about your work with the U.N.

I work as a U.S. ambassador of youth advocacy. It's an organization called Humanitarian Affairs, headquartered in London. They do a lot of youth development in Asia. That started the summer after my junior year.

I went to the U.N.’s United Scholars Leadership Symposium. It was a lot of different U.N. agencies all having these conversations about what it means to be 20, 21, 22 years old and dreaming of big changes in the world.

I remember it was one of the most emotionally evoking experiences of my life. We were talking about women who have had female genital mutilations. We were talking about their experiences, and it was one of those things where you're like, "I want to do this for the rest of my life, and I can't just sit and watch."

You've been part of some awesome groups. You've also started quite a few yourself. Tell me about Peace of Mail and 3Sisters Foundation.

Peace of Mail started my freshman year of college. It was around the time that a little kid was washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean. At the time, my brother would've been almost three and he had dark hair; he looked very similar to the boy.

It was one of those life changing moments. I was sitting in my college dorm at my computer. I saw the picture [of Alan Kurdi]. I pushed back my desk. I was like, “Forget it. I can't do this anymore. I can't just watch for the rest of my life and be like, ‘Oh, it's so sad.’"  

My dad is from a little town north of Jordan. It is really close to the Syrian border. I had spent the summer before then in Jordan, and bombs would accidentally fall into the city. We were not in Syria, so to feel that much of the emotion without being directly impacted… Well, it feels so hopeless. It took a big toll on me.

At one point, we were in the capital and I was hanging out with my grandpa – it was around Eid, which is our big holiday – and it sounded like fireworks. I was like, "Is that the celebration?" 

He's like, "No, those are just the bombs."

It hits you in that moment. It's our holiday. We're an hour and a half drive away from the border, yet you could just hear bombs shake the night.

It was all in my head and, being in the region, sometimes it feels like you have no control over your fate, just because there's so much sadness. Everywhere you look, every direction, it's like war or refugees. It starts to take a toll on you. We've been through so much, but we still somehow get back up. People joke and are still smiling on the street. It's beautiful how people still continue every day.

We've been through so much, but we still somehow get back up.

I think so much of that goes back to Islam and having the faith that says, "You know what? Sure, these are the bombs. But those are our brothers and sisters. They need you.” So, when I came back to campus, it was in my head. I hopped onto Humans of New York. I was like, "All right, here goes my rant."

I typed this really long rant: “I'm collecting letters of support for refugees. Send them to me. I'm going to translate." I started getting letters from Singapore and Portugal and Australia and these kindergarteners in Spain. All these kids drawing pictures and saying, "We know… We're watching." It's all part of trying to create this human touch to people forced out of their homes and countries.

After all the letters came in, I translated the ones that needed translating. Then, I worked with my aunt, who knew some communities in need [of support. We forwarded the letters to those communities.] It was the start of it all. Basically, I shouted into this box and from there, it exploded. That's Peace of Mail.

Sara Al-Zubi

Wow, that's amazing. What about the 3Sisters Foundation? You got another awesome story?

3Sisters is my grand finale from the past three years.

I interned for the Red Cross one winter and I did a Syria campaign, and we ended up raising 1,700 pounds of clothing to send to this refugee camp in Lebanon. Then, I moved on to do local work in Cincinnati by coaching and helping refugee families transition. From there, I started getting involved with doing summer camps with the kids and just getting local and getting my whole heart into the game.

I realized there's a lot of trauma from a community health perspective. But, there's also a lot of checkboxes that have to be met before you can talk about mental health and what that trauma means. That's not an easy conversation to have.

I did a training with a local psychologist where we learned about the signs of trauma, and what kinds of things you can let people know about in the community to find safe spaces and comfort, whether it's knowing where the closest park is, or knowing where the library is, or how to use a library for children. By creating these outlets, you start to create this support base from within the community.

All of that led to forming 3Sisters, a place where refugees can turn to for support as they settle here and start to feel a connection to the community. It was me realizing that there was no standardized resource that allowed for anonymity and allowed refugees that are resettled here to ask for help without having to put their dignity on the line.

It's still really early into the project, so we’re still working out the details, but the goal is to develop the hotline into a resource. I also want to make mental health something that we talk about, because addressing it usually takes a back burner to all the other things the families deal with during resettlement. I’m trying to fix that.

Why do you call it “3Sisters”?

In my family, there are three sisters altogether, including me. Much of our connection is because of the way we grew up. Moving around a lot, there was a bond that we created for each other. It wasn't easy in the beginning whatsoever. There were a lot of nights where we would all just sleep in the same bed. We were all much smaller then! I always felt so safe.

We realized we were each other's backbones. In those moments, snuggled up with my sisters, I just felt so safe, so when I was thinking of a name, I was like, "That's the feeling I want refugees to feel when they come here."

Refugees have gone through so much. I want to be a part of the system that makes sure that this chance, this second start, is the best and safest start I can give them.

You’ve accomplished so much. Is there a thing you're most proud of?

What am I most proud of? I think it's not so much any of the things I have done. I think for me, it's probably the community. It’s the families who let me in – their trust.

I'm a nobody. Yet, these families all of a sudden were asking me important things, like, “Should I take this job?” "Do you trust this doctor to treat me? Do you like him?" I feel so humbled.

What am I most proud of? I think it's not so much any of the things I have done. I think for me, it's probably the community. It’s the families who let me in.

These families have taught me so much. I think so much of my work with them has been the best education that I could've had. I am so thankful that families are taking time to share these stories with me and that they trust me enough.

We’ve covered a ton. Is there anything else you want to talk about?

The only part that I guess that I left out is my grandma and my mom and my dad. They’ve invested in my sisters and me. All three of them have had such an amazing impact on my life.

My grandma, in particular, on my mom's side… She's such a kickass woman. I remember I would spend my summers with her. I'd leave the door to the bedroom open so when she got up, I could hear her. I’d want to get up, too, so I could hang out with her.

My grandma was never afraid. She raised six girls. She made sure none of them would think, “I shouldn't do this because I'm this gender.“ And if she saw something wrong, she always did something about it. And I think that transferred over to my mom. She is the same way: She would rather say the truth with her neck on the line than sit in silence and see injustice.

My dad has been the really supportive dad. Knowing some of my crazy ideas, like wanting to go into trauma medicine, and do policy work, it stresses both of my parents out so much. They're like, "Oh my God. What about family medicine?"

I’m like, "No, I need to be part of something bigger." And they back me completely.

It sounds like all the women in your family are pretty kickass. 

They are. I'm doing what I'm doing because of them. I think a lot of that goes back to the ideals of Islam that I've grown up with. You want to help your neighbor like you want someone to help you. I think so much of that has come through finding peace in my faith.

Sara Al-Zubi

Is your faith directing you or is it where you built the foundation?

It is both. I think our faith is why my parents calm down, even though they freak out whenever I’m around trauma. They're like, "Oh my God, no. But, she can do this."

For me, Islam is about doing the right thing. So many of the teachings are about being honest and truthful and compassionate. Having that tied to God allows you to calm down a little bit and still be able to go on the next day.

When you see the kind of crises in the world… It’s a lot to process, especially being a Middle Easterner. Every day is a new sad story. You have to find somewhere to find peace. Activism and faith are where I found mine.

That is a beautiful thing right there. Are there other ways for people to get involved with the good work you are doing?

Refugee Connect is a great organization and they’re always looking for volunteers. That's kind of the big one that comes to mind.

The women and children are the most vulnerable group in crisis. They're the ones that are so often forgotten. They hurt the most, but at the same time, moms are supposed to act like everything's okay and move on. I was like, "You know what? I need to be on their ground, learning and being there with them." That's kind of that end-piece to what I want to do.

So, for me, I would love to talk with anybody who is interested in 3Sisters Foundation or the mental health aspect of the refugee, in particular. Sometimes it's nice to feel like there's someone else in the community that cares about it.

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