At Demonstration, UF Group Campaigns For Syrian Refugee Scholarships


For Rana Al-Nahhas, the Syrian refugee crisis hits close to home.

A few years ago, her cousin was sitting on his bedroom floor in Syria when a bullet burst through the window and zipped across his bed.

“If the series of events played differently, he would have ended up on the bed, and he would have had his life taken,” she said.

Al-Nahhas, who was born in the U.S., is of Syrian decent, and she has distant family living there. She is the president of the University of Florida chapter of Students Organize for Syria, a student-led movement with chapters at other universities across the United States.

UF’s chapter held a silent demonstration — called “Save a Seat for Syria” — Tuesday afternoon at the university’s Turlington Plaza, where they passed around a petition and distributed information about the crisis in Syria.

The petition’s purpose is to encourage UF to award scholarships to Syrian refugees so they can attend the university.

“Our fundamental purpose is to get enough signatures … so that five Syrian refugee students can come to the University of Florida and receive an education, and UF would pay for them in full,” said Rebecca Prince, a UF student who participated in the demonstration.

If UF waives tuition costs, the International Institute of Education’s Syria Consortium will cover the living costs, Al-Nahhas said.

The consortium has brought together more than 150 universities globally as part of a campaign called “Books Not Bombs,” which pushes universities to provide scholarships for Syrian students so they can continue their educations in a safe environment.

Al-Nahhas said that the purpose of Tuesday’s demonstration was to show that education is a fundamental human right.

Other Florida universities, including Florida State University, the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida, held demonstrations Tuesday for the same purpose.

Hassan Syed, vice president of UF’s Students Organize for Syria chapter, said that he has seen the struggle that Syrian refugees face firsthand at his mosque in South Florida.

The membership there includes a family of refugees who came to Florida with little or no money and knew no one, Syed said.

“Just knowing that they’ve been through this and seeing them have the ability to even smile and laugh anymore after what they’ve been through, it’s both amazing and it’s sad,” he said. “It makes me feel better about myself and appreciate what I have.”

Syed said that the refugee family includes a son who will be going to college soon and that they don’t know how they can afford for him to.

During the demonstration, UF student Mashli Fleurestil sat on the ground and held a sign that read, “Education is a human right.”

“I think that’s something people forget often is that these students are humans just like we are,” she said, “and they have dreams and desires and passions just like we do.”

Fleurestil said she feels personally connected to the cause because she’s friends with Rana Al-Nahhas.

“As the headlines came out about what’s happening in Syria and politicians started to mention Syria, it became personal automatically because it wasn’t just Syrian refugees anymore,” Fleurestil said. “This is Rana. This is Rana’s family. So there was a face to the population I was hearing about in the news.”

Al-Nahhas said that the war in Syria is the worst humanitarian crisis today.

“I think it’s our obligation to say something,” she said. “Innocent people are dying. This is just my duty as a human being.”

About Michaela Steakley

Michaela Steakley is a reporter for WUFT News and can be reached at 352-392-6397 or

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