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Reflecting on 18 of the Last 9: Leena Zahra

Leena sits on a couch with a family

By Megan Schulte, Communications Specialist 

The first alumni feature in the 18 of Last 9: Global Impact series is Leena Zahra, the Community Program Coordinator for the Karam Foundation. Her international educational experiences include a semester in Geneva, a winter term program in Cuba, and a master's program at the London School of Economics. During our interview, she reflected on how study abroad allowed her to purse her passion regarding the humanitarian crisis in Syria. 

Professional Development 

Leena credits her first experience in Geneva, Switzerland, as helping to get her on her current professional path by providing hands-on experience with international development and international relief work. During this semester, she interned at a UN agency called the World Food Program, where she was able to focus on a great interest of hers: Syria.

Her time with the agency allowed her to “meet so many people from so many different areas. I realized that although it's a small team, the impact and the scale is large, and that you have room to grow personally and professionally. So without a doubt my time at Miami and my study abroad experience helped me to be prepared to go on that path," Leena said. 

During her senior year, Leena traveled to Cuba where she was fascinated to learn about the history of affected populations, state collapse, and the history of the state structure—all parts of the Syrian crisis narrative. What really helped to shape her personal and professional development was "the exposure to experiences both here and internationally, that were not the conventional way of looking at how I wanted to adjust the humanitarian crisis, but really allowed me to explore different parts of the world and different responses." 

Master's Degree Abroad 

After graduating from Miami, Leena traveled across the pond to receive a master's degree from the London School of Economics in International Development and hHumanitarian Emergencies. Before enrolling, she debated over what path she wanted to take, but her study abroad experiences during her undergraduate years encouraged Leena to pursue international education opportunities once again. 

Leena had a great experience there, saying, "what was key was bringing my experiences and sharing that, and continuing my advocacy within the community. So what you can do is really wide reaching and really impacting. There is really a need for students, you know future students, to bring it back here as well." 

Passion For Syria 

Both of Leena's parents are Syrian immigrants, and this connection to this region fuels her passion for aiding the humanitarian crisis. This passion led to both her areas of study and career choice. 

While at Miami, she completed a Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies minor, which she said helped her to understand "what were the impacting pieces of Syria and its development and connection to other key state institutions in the area that at the time. So seeing the similarities, the differences, but then also understanding not just political but also cultural motives. Having that ability to do a Middle East minor really allowed me to understand not only the variances across the country but within them through all of those disciplines."

Leena's passion for the Syrian conflict has continued in her post-grad life, as she is the co-founder of In-Sight, which serves as a network for advocates to provide accurate and poignant information from the frontline of the refugee crisis. She also serves as the Community Program Coordinator at the Karam Foundation, where she works to better the future of Syria—the country she has dedicated her life to improving. The Karam Foundation is a non-profit organization that is on a mission to build a better future for Syria. They develop Innovative Education programs for Syrian refugee youth, distribute Smart Aid to Syrian families, and fund Sustainable Development projects initiated by Syrians for Syrians. 

As far as an impact from study abroad, Leena was moved by understanding on a deeper level what was affecting her family. This personal connection was deepened by seeing the impact that she had on those she helped "and seeing that resilience behind those stories and that individuals are more than their circumstances and having that exposure you are giving back but you are also getting a lot in return so definitely explore what’s out there," Leena said. 

Final Thoughts 

The interview concluded with the question of “what would you tell a student that is interested in studying abroad.” Leena’s response was, “Again, I want to emphasize to explore what is out there and take those human pieces and human stories to heart. Even just meeting someone that speaks a different language from you or has a different culture from you even if there are very visible differences, there are a lot of similarities, and a lot of meaningful ways of sharing who you are." 

For those interested in learning about the Syrian humanitarian crisis, and ways to support the Syrian refugee community, follow the Karam Foundation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

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Meet Leena 

Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio

Study Abroad: Geneva, Switzerland & Masters at London School of Economics 

Occupation: Community Program Coordinator, Karam Foundation 

award winner smiles in front of flags

"Take the initiative and don’t always expect things to fall in your lap. You’d be surprised when you do something that is directly related to what you are passionate about and you take that initiative, you’ll come a long way."

- Leena Zahra