The Future is Sara Al-Zubi: Former Ambassador to the UN, Refugee Advocate & College Senior

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Photo: Stacy Wegley Photography

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April 18, 2024 at 6:15PM UTC
Sara Al-Zubi is the definition of successful. This Harry S. Truman scholar and Rhodes Scholarship finalist is a senior at Miami University. But beyond dedicating herself to being an exemplary student, Al-Zubi has dedicated herself to a much nobler cause: giving back to her global community. Al-Zubi works with refugees in multiple capacities. She has served as an intern and board member to RefugeeConnect, an intern to U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants — Cleveland Field Office, and a Refugee Transition Coach. She also served as the U.S. ambassador for Humanitarian Affairs to the UN.

Al-Zubi started her own initiative to  support refugees overseas, Peace of Mail, which went viral on a Humans of New York post. Then, with this encouragement, she founded Refugee Advisory Council on Miami's campus. The group encourages students to provide advocacy and direct assistance for refugees in Southwest Ohio. We talked to al-Zubi about her path to her passion, the importance of community in solving global issues and the key to inspiring others. Then, she shared her best advice for young women who want to make a difference — whether in their backyard or around the world. 

How are you making an impact on your school or local community?
I founded an organization called Refugee Advisory Council on my campus. The purpose of RAC is to provide an opportunity for undergraduate students to become an integral part of the support system for refugees resettled in the Southwest Ohio region. RAC is a coalition of students that want to provide advocacy and direct assistance for refugees on our campus and part of the Greater Cincinnati community. We are passionate about working and connecting with the local communities, and raising awareness on our campus.

What made you passionate about the project or role that's allowing you to make a difference?
The photo of the toddler that washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean was the start of my activism and work. I had spent the summer before college with my family in Ramtha, Jordan, which is a little town off the Syrian border. It had been on my mind that I wanted to do something about the refugee crisis. Our neighbors were Syrian refugees, and there were a few refugees staying in my grandparent's house. I just felt so helpless. I hated that feeling. My parents raised us to be people that take action. By the time I saw the picture of Alan Kurdi, it was the last straw. I wanted to let the Syrian refugees know they weren't alone. The first action I took was posting an idea on Humans of New York,  because the photographer was doing a series on Syrian Refugees in Jordan. I asked people to send me letters that I would translate and send to refugees in Jordan, and I got amazing feedback. I began getting letters from Singapore, Portugal, Australia... I translated them and sent them to refugees. I named this initiative Peace of Mail, and it inspired me to do more work with refugees. 

How did you get in this position? Were you elected, selected, or did you start the project yourself? What steps did you take to fulfill this role? Did you study something specific, join this club first year, etc.
I started the project by myself. It was something that I wanted to leave my campus with, because we don't have anything like this at Miami. It is really important for us in Oxford, Ohio to understand what is happening an hour away. This is a chance for students to get engaged and to develop their own opinions based off their personal experiences. That's the power of having an organization like this on campus. It's really easy to lose sight of the human when it feels like just another news story. But when you realize that the news impacts people in your community —  and when you are able to interact and form friendships with those impacted — that's change. I believe in experiential learning, and this is part of realizing the depth and complexity of issues that refugees and forced migrants face. These issues are impacting generations, and the consequences of their experience will impact their life forever. The least we can do is allow them a voice to share their story.

What other activities, projects, or jobs do you do at school? Spill your resume!
I am the Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Humanitarian Affairs. I have also interned for RefugeeConnect, the American Red Cross, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants — Cleveland Field Office, UOSSM-USA, Young for Congress, and the Jordan River Foundation. I attend the state of Ohio Refugee Advisory Council meetings, as well as the New Cincinnatians' meetings under the City Council. 

At school, I currently sit on the National University Steering Committee for my university. I also founded an initiative called ProjectEquip, that was used to train local community members about mental health and cultural competency. I also founded my own organization called 3Sisters Foundation that encourages women's empowerment.

What is an accomplishment you're proud of?
My work as a Refugee Transition Coach has had the biggest impact on me. When I started working as a health refugee transition coach in Cincinnati the summer after my freshman year, it opened a door into what became the best experience of my life. My only qualification was the fact that I spoke Arabic. In my mind, there was no way the responsibility of transitioning refugees into their new life could fall on an Arabic-speaking 18 year old. It was extremely exhausting at first, but it was truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I worked with so many families that taught me more life lessons than I could have imagined. I learned the true power of persistence, hard work and determination. I am so proud to call myself their friend.

What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
The biggest challenge I have had to face was finding my voice and identity during my family's many moves. I had to find who I want to be and why I wanted to be that person. Through every move, so many of my ideals and parts of my Arab-American Muslim identity were tested. However, I found so much peace in embracing who I am and the person I am becoming. Without those hard moments, I would not be the type of woman that I am today.

What advice do you have for women who want to make a difference at their school?
Never be afraid to speak up. Never be afraid to disrupt the flow to share your thoughts. Never be afraid to ask, to suggest, and to share. Your power and ability to grow and develop lies in the beauty of letting go of the fear that stunts your growth. The best new things happen when you are not afraid. If you have an idea, embrace it and share it. If you have a critique on how to improve a current project, be bold. Your opinion is worth it.

Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? Why?
Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. 1400 years ago,  upon her father’s death, she took over the business and traded goods through the primary commerce centers at that time — from Mecca to Syria and to Yemen. Her trading business was larger than her entire tribe's combined, and she was the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon Him).  I think we talk about shattering the glass ceiling so often, and this woman embodies the ideals of a powerful, intelligent woman with a kind heart. She was ambitious and had clear intentions of how she wanted to lead her life and by whom she wanted to lead her life. It is amazing that this happened over 1400 years ago, because we are still fighting for rights that were embraced by Prophet Muhammad's wife that long ago.

Lightning Round: What's Your Karaoke Song?
"Yellow Submarine" by The Beatles.

Lightning Round: What's Your Favorite Book?
"Siddhartha" by Herman Hesse.

Lightning Round: What's Your Favorite Movie?

Lightning Round: What's Your Favorite Quote?
“It’s your road, and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you,” — Rumi

Fairygodboss is all about celebrating female leaders — so every other week, we celebrate a young woman who is making a difference in her school or local community. Do you know a student leader who’s making an impact? Celebrate her and thank her by nominating her here.

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