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Mason graduate student builds her expertise so she can help rebuild Syria

February 8, 2016   /   by Damian Cristodero

May Abou Ghazaleh is pursuing a master's degree in real estate development at Mason. Photo by Evan Cantwell

May Abou Ghazaleh watches what is happening in Syria with both sadness and gratitude—sad that her homeland is imploding because of civil war, but thankful that a year ago she escaped with her two daughters and is now living a peaceful life in the United States.

“I really want to go back,” Abou Ghazaleh said. “I really want my daughters to go back. But when I look at the future there, what am I offering them?”

For Abou Ghazaleh, the intertwined question is what can she offer Syria? That is why she is at George Mason University, pursuing a master’s degree in real estate development.

An architect with a bachelor’s degree from Damascus University, Abou Ghazaleh yearns to help rebuild her battered country when the war is over.

“But architects work in details,” she said. “I wanted something broader.”

At Mason, Abou Ghazaleh said, “I’ve learned about the laws here, the zoning ordinances. It does not directly apply (to Syria), but maybe 50 percent of Syria is destroyed, so if I’m going to go back and do things, you need to do it right. When you have this background of how they set rules and laws and the ordinances, then you have a basis to your thinking.”

A year ago, all Abou Ghazaleh thought about was leaving Syria. With her brother, Tarek, a cardiologist, established in Chantilly, Va., and her parents there as well, it was a natural landing place.

Abou Ghazaleh said she was drawn to George Mason because of the promise on the university’s website of an accepting environment for international students.

“That was a very big concern for me, especially because (Syrians) are under the pressure of nobody wants us,” she said. “I read that you will be treated as if you are one of the community here. I said, ‘That is what I want.’ ”

That is what Abou Ghazaleh said she found.

She recently received an EagleBank Scholarship, one of five George Mason students to benefit this school year from the $60,000 the bank provided for scholarships. The scholarships are part of EagleBank’s multimillion-dollar strategic partnership with Mason that includes a broad array of educational programs and the naming rights to EagleBank Arena. The scholarships were awarded by Mason and are based on merit and need.

“She’s very determined to succeed,” said Kat Grimsley, Abou Ghazaleh’s program director. “She’s quiet, but she’s not timid. She speaks up when asked to and when she has an opinion to give. But she is not one of these people who needs to be out there with her ego all the time. The quiet-strength archetype comes to mind.”

Abou Ghazaleh has another year of study at Mason, but said if the war is still raging, she will stay and work toward a PhD. With her daughters, Somaya, 13, and Moumina, 11, in school and her family close for support it is, for now, the best situation.

But as she said she told the visa examiner at the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, “My major is all about coming back [to Syria]. What I’m going to study is all about coming back.”