Palestinian-Syrian refugee walks a path of dedicated learning and selfless service

Mohammad Hameed is standing on the plaza near the Joseph Smith Building. Hameed traveled from Lebanon to Utah in 2022 to pursue a degree in chemical engineering. (Amy Ortiz)

Yearning to ease his family’s burden at age 15, Palestinian-Syrian refugee Mohammad Hameed embarked on a path of dedicated learning and selfless service.

Throughout this journey, Hameed has embraced opportunities such as applying for a scholarship to attend high school in Jordan, acquiring higher education at BYU and using his skills and education to give back to his community.

“He is a beautiful image and a radiation of hope … to those who want to reach their dreams through hard working and determination, even though he started from point zero,” his father, Ragheb Hameed, said.

Mohammad Hameed and his younger brother in Syria. Mohammad Hameed and his family lived in Syria until 2012. (Mohammad Hameed)

Mohammad was born in Syria in 2003 — the place his Palestinian ancestors evacuated to in 1948. He and his family lived in Syria until the end of 2012, when the growing conflict in Syria caused them to seek refuge in the Rashidieh refugee camp located in Lebanon.

“We had to leave for us to be safe,” Mohammad said. “So we left to Lebanon and the situation was … safer, but it wasn’t better.”

Mohammad described the life of refugees back home as “shallow” and filled with suffering. He also said the work industry in Lebanon discriminates against Palestinians by limiting their vocational opportunities. 

“I can’t … express how hard it is,” Mohammad said. “We face different kinds of discrimination (and) don’t have what motivates us to build a future and dream about our future life.” 

Seeing his father struggle to keep his family afloat, Mohammad felt the urge to begin working at a restaurant located in the Rashidieh refugee camp.

“I felt like I had the responsibility to do something,” Mohammad said.

Despite his eagerness to help, the negative work environment caused Mohammad to resign just two weeks later. However, he said his father’s response to his resignation impacted him.

“I didn’t send you to work to get money, I sent you to work to realize how important education is, and that it’s your way out,” Mohammad’s father said. 

Attending one of the schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Mohammad began studying and working hard to excel in school.

“I just started focusing on my education because I thought my education is the way to get out of the country, help my family, give back to the community (and) help the refugees in general,” he said.

In 2018, an UNRWA school counselor informed Mohammad and a group of students about a scholarship opportunity to attend high school in Jordan, though the counselor did not specify which school.

Seeing an opportunity to advance his education, Mohammad began the application process. The process started with an interview with three officials of the Unite Lebanon Youth Project, a non-profit organization that creates educational opportunities for those in marginalized communities.

“I thought I didn’t do well,” Mohammad said about his initial interview. “I went back home, and I told my mom, ‘There’s no way I’m going there.’”

Mohammad shared his mother assured him God had a plan and if it was better for him, God would make it for him.

Four months later, Mohammad received an email saying he was one of the seven students selected from Lebanon to be interviewed, this time by a King’s Academy official.

King’s Academy is a boarding and day school dedicated to developing and empowering “young leaders from diverse backgrounds who will cherish one another and drive change towards a shared future of peace and opportunity,” according to the King’s Academy website.

“We talked about my life, my family (and) how hard life is at the refugee camps,” Mohammad said.

However, once again, Mohammad left the interview unsure he would be selected. He was afraid his inability to speak English at the time — the academy’s primary language — would disqualify him.

To his surprise, Mohammad was selected as the only student from Lebanon to receive the scholarship and began attending King’s Academy in 2019.

“At that point, I started dreaming about a new life,” he said.

Trying to learn English at King’s Academy was difficult for Mohammad, but he expressed attending King’s Academy changed his life and gave him opportunities such as winning a speech-giving award, being captain of the varsity soccer team and making a personal connection with King Abdullah II of Jordan at his graduation dinner in 2022.

After graduation, Mohammad’s counselors at King’s Academy helped connect him with several universities, of which he selected BYU. In August 2022, he traveled to Utah to pursue a career in chemical engineering.

“Chemical engineering really gives you a sense of how things work around you,” Mohammad said. “How a car works, how things operate … that’s why I chose chemical engineering.”

Despite pursuing a career he enjoys, Mohammad said adapting to life at BYU was challenging.

“I had a cultural shock,” he said.

Everything from the food to the weather was different, and Mohammad explained he found it hard to connect with others.

“I feel like people here don’t know how to talk to foreign people like me,” Mohammad said. “I always try to connect with them, however … the way that they talk to each other is much different than the way they talk to me.”

To counter these challenges and feel more at home, Mohammad shared he likes to connect with other Arab students on campus, listen to traditional Arabic songs, cook Arabic food and write his own poems in Arabic.

Mohammad said he also uses soccer, a sport which he has enjoyed playing since he was young, as an “escape.”

“Whenever I feel down, … I go to soccer,” Mohammad said. “I kick the ball (and) get the negative energy out.”

He said that playing soccer as part of a BYU intramural soccer team has helped him connect with other BYU students.

Considering how his refugee experience has shaped his goals and work ethic, Mohammad explained it has made him more willing to work and take risks.

“I’m always more determined, more results oriented, more willing to do the work, even though it could be very hard,” he said.

Mohammad’s experience and example has also inspired and encouraged those around him.

Mahmoud Khalil is one of Mohammad’s close friends who also attended King’s Academy and came to BYU a few years earlier to study software engineering. He shared Mohammad’s persistent and diligent example has taught him the importance of resilience and the power of support.

“Seeing him push through adversity, travel to high school and university, and continuously strive for the better has been an inspiration,” Khalil said. “Together, we’ve learned that no matter how difficult the circumstances get, with hard work and discipline, you can overcome any obstacle.”

Mohammad’s mother, Nesrin AlSahli, also discussed Mohammad’s ambitious and hard-working nature, and said his efforts have been a source of pride and joy in their home.

“When you see your kid harvesting what he has planted for years of determination and work to get to his dreams, it is definitely prideful,” AlSahli said.

Ragheb Hameed echoed AlSahli’s words and said despite the distance and the struggles they have faced as a family, he is relieved knowing his son is walking on the path of learning and education. He also shared he hopes his son will use his success to help others.

“We hope to see him a successful person at whatever he does and beneficial to his community and all humanity,” Ragheb Hameed said.

As Mohammad has traveled home each summer for the past few years, he has looked for ways to give back to his community. In 2021, he co-founded Be Influential — an initiative aiming to raise money and donate essentials to refugees in Lebanon. In the summer of 2022, he coached around 90 refugee teens as a UNRWA soccer coach.

Looking forward, Mohammad shared he hopes to use the opportunities he has been given to find a job that will settle him and bring his family to safety. He also said he hopes his story will encourage others on their own paths.

“I just want people to believe that they can do stuff, even how hard things get … they can rise from death to do stuff,” he said. 

Mohammad encouraged others to stand up for what they believe in and hold on to hope. After all, his entire life began to change because of his willingness to accept an opportunity.

“Always go against the flow,” Mohammad said. “Don’t lose hope in your life, … fight, always seek opportunities — any opportunity.”

Mohammad Hameed encourages students to “go against the flow” and seek opportunities. Hameed is currently studying chemical engineering at BYU. (Amy Ortiz)
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