Immigrants are contributors to our country – a fact that this is clearer than ever today as the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans announces its 2015 fellows. The fellowship provides remarkable first- and second-generation immigrants with the opportunity to achieve leadership in their chosen fields by providing funding to support their graduate studies. This year’s class represents a diverse cross sector of subjects, such as law, music, mathematics, writing, medicine, and business, as well as over 20 countries. For all their diversity of interests and accomplishments, however, the fellows – and other New Americans like them – share a common characteristic: the potential to make significant contributions to U.S. society and culture. In celebration of this year’s class and the value of all immigrants, below are profiles of a few of the fellows and what they believe communities can do to become more welcoming. Applications are now open for the 2016 class of the fellowship and are due November 1, 2015 at 11:50pm EST. To learn more, visit www.pdsoros.org.
Amal Elbakhar was born in Casablanca, Morocco and moved to New York City with her parents at the age of 9. Two of her biggest hurdles to adjusting to life in the U.S. included the language barrier and having to figure out systems – such as how to apply to school – entirely on her own. Neither of her parents has a high school diploma, and they knew nothing about the application process for New York City high schools or college admissions. However, mentorship has played a major positive role in Amal’s life, and she credits her mentors with helping her achieve her goals and pursue new opportunities; for example, one of Amal’s professors at Macaulay Honors College would sit with her every week to help her with her thesis, and her supervisors at New York University Medical Center encouraged her to take on new opportunities. Growing up, Amal also had to navigate the space between two cultures, including asserting her goals over the expectation that she would become a housewife. Through this experience, her cultural background, and a love for politics and law, she decided to study women’s rights issues at Harvard Law School. She hopes to work in the New York State Sex Trafficking Unit and help advance laws that promote women's rights.
According to Amal, finding resources is among the biggest hurdles for New Americans, underlying the importance for communities to help immigrants access them. When Amal was young, the library in Queens – which held weekly sessions on English language learning, typing, and resume creation – proved to be an important resource for her family. Ultimately, Amal believes the most effective way to get anything does is to be inclusive: “I’m a big fan of inclusion….My goal is to make sure every group is inclusive at Harvard Law School.”
Ayan Hussein is a Somali refugee who resettled in Clarkston, Georgia with her family as a teenager in 2003. Ayan faced challenges growing up, both at a Kenyan refugee camp and in the U.S. She remembers being bullied in her freshman year of high school, but she did not let it stop her from taking advantage of the opportunities the U.S. provided her and focused her energies on her education. Although her family was unfamiliar with the U.S. school system, mentors helped her find her way. She went on to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship and attended the University of Georgia, where she continued to challenge herself academically. Now, she is pursuing a PhD in biological and biomedical sciences at Yale University. Her goal is to become a principal investigator and a professor of neuroscience and play a role in increasing the percentage of women faculty, especially women of color. Following in the footsteps of her mentors, Ayan is also giving back through the Gates Millennium Ambassador program, with which she helps underserved students of diverse backgrounds apply for the scholarship. She is proud of her work through the ambassador program and says it is one of her greatest accomplishments.
Says Ayan, “We were able to flourish because the community was genuinely happy for us to be there.” She recalls members of a church knocking on doors to get them engaged in the community. They invited her family to events around town, including a barbeque. “Kind gestures [like these] helped us to feel like a part of the community.”
Cecil Benitez was born in Durango, Mexico. Because of the lack of job and educational opportunities in the country, her mother moved to California and eventually brought Cecil to the U.S. as well, where she thought Cecil would have a better future. While the U.S. is considered the land of opportunity, Cecil recalls being in constant fear of deportation and the police. She remembers cringing when seeing an officer. At the same time, she was young and did not understand the laws or the concept of borders and could not understand why her family was treated differently. “It was a weird feeling as a child,” said Cecil. She felt like an outsider throughout her childhood especially when her classmates would make hurtful comments about undocumented immigrants. She felt like she had to hide. Despite these challenges, Cecil has persevered, attending the University of California, Los Angeles for her Bachelor’s and pursuing her PhD in developmental biology at Stanford University. Of her interest in research, she says, “I had no idea what research was….I learned what it was in college, and I got to really engage with the materials and was really interested in the questions.” Cecil is now pursuing an MD at Stanford Medical School and wants to ultimately provide underserved patients with resources and link those who don’t have insurance to free healthcare. She decided to pursue her MD because it incorporates her love of research in developmental biology and her interest in working with people.
“It’s important to the community itself, [which maximizes immigrants’ ability to] contribute and make an impact. As new immigrants, we have a lot of things to offer….We really want to contribute to the U.S. The U.S. has provided me with so many opportunities, and I feel a responsibility to give back.”
About the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship
Established in 1997, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans program annually supports thirty New Americans, immigrants or the children of immigrants, who are pursuing graduate school in the United States. Each fellowship supports up to two years of graduate study – in any field and in any advanced degree-granting program – in the United States. The 2015 class of Fellows includes researchers, mathematicians, writers, scientists, translators, musicians, entrepreneurs, and future doctors and lawyers as well as the first-ever Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow in the field of nursing.
The fellows hail from China, Vietnam, Iran, Nigeria, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Albania, Ukraine, Morocco, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, Libya, Poland, Russia, Peru, Israel, Oman, Brazil, and the United States.