If you have had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Ghada Al-Masri, Ohlone’s Dean of Social Sciences, you will walk away inspired by her passion, her presence, and her beaming energy. But Dr. Al-Masri didn’t always have much to smile about as she shares the difficulties and hardships she endured as a child immigrating to the United States. Hers is a story of the true American, taking adversity by the horns and turning it into achievement.
Going to college was a long shot for me and one that I had no idea how to make possible. My father was the eldest of five boys and his father was the eldest of all-male siblings. I was the first female child born into my paternal line in over three generations. My mother later shared that my birth was an unexpected disappointment and how the family would forgo the traditional celebrations afforded to the birth of my three brothers. The midwife and my mother were blamed for my biology because my grandfather’s hopes and plans were thwarted. My intended name was supposed to be “Jihad,” as I was expected to be a boy. Without any thought to a girl’s name, my father was certain I would be his second son. My father picked my name from the newspaper as he searched for a female name and selected “Ghada” after a journalist.
My family belongs to the Druze community in the Chouf Mountains of Lebanon. They have been a persecuted people for their belief in reincarnation and found refuge for hundreds of years in the high mountains with its natural geographical defenses. However, this would no longer prove to be safe with the onset of the Lebanese Civil war where several proxy wars were unleashed through the military and militia who took over the region beginning in 1974. The war would last 16 years and it would be 1998 before I could return. Belonging to a small minority group, my family was no longer safe.
At the age of three-years-old, my family decided to take refuge in Mexico where we received political asylum. That same year, I was smuggled from Tijuana to San Diego. I have vivid and fearful memories of crossing the border and my three brothers and I being separated from our parents. My parents took a separate route through Mexicali, and we were reunited in Orange County where we made our home. My father knew some English and Spanish, but my mother could only speak Arabic. My language skills required I repeat kindergarten and my teachers finally informed my parents that they should no longer speak to me and my brothers in Arabic anymore—this was a hardship for my mother. Eventually, my mother leaned on me to read the mail for her, write checks, and explain what I learned at school to her. My Interactions with the wider community were anxiety inducing and were kept to a minimum out of fear we would be discovered as “illegal” human beings.
Those years of living in a form of hiding were difficult and traumatic for me and my family. I had little material comforts and was often teased for wearing the same clothes to school and eating strange food. Nowhere felt safe where I could be fully at ease. My teachers were my safest connection to the world because, through them, I could better understand the new world I was in that never felt belonged to me. Looking upon this period of my K-12 education, my teachers were significant mentors, but I always feared they would find out that I didn’t belong—then I would lose everything, including their attention and kindness.
Things took another turn when in 1981, we learned that the family members we left behind in Lebanon were massacred. My mother wore black for five years and my father, more fearful than ever that we would be discovered and sent back, had little opportunity to get work selling goods at the swap meet. I remember food being limited and eating boiled wheat and living in our car until we found shelter living in a relative’s garage.
In my early teens, I decided I wanted to become a pediatrician so that I could help children who, like myself, had limited health care access in refugee camps across Asia and Africa. The problem was that I would need to find a way to go to college. Coming from a family where my mother was taken out of school in the 5th grade in Syria and my father barely completed the 10th grade, it was almost unfathomable for me to go the route of education, and I definitely had no help in figuring out the pathway towards my future. I only knew that I had to study hard.
Without any money, or the legal documentation to go to college, I hit a ceiling. However, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, supported by President Ronald Reagan, offered my family renewed hope. I remember the excitement and sense of relief in my family but we later found out that in order to qualify for legal status, my parents had to return to Lebanon during one of the bloodiest periods of the war before they could legally re-enter the U.S. My brothers and I stayed with my father’s parents while my mom and dad went back to the war. They were supposed to be gone for three months, but the situation grew even more dire as the Beirut Airport was bombed and shut down for six months. The American Embassy was also bombed, and my parents had to cross yet another border to access the American Embassy located in Damascus. It was eight months before my parents were finally able to return to California. My father could legally work but remained an unskilled laborer with limited language skills. In 1988, I received my temporary resident card and was finally able to legally attend college. Years later, I received my permanent resident card, and finally, my citizenship in 2001.
My challenges were not over—I still could not go to college without money. So, I found various ways to help empower myself and began volunteering in the pediatric ward at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, in 1986. I later learned that I could qualify for grants and scholarships to study biology (my favorite subject) at Saddleback College and later, UC Irvine. Through some scholarship awards, grants, and lots of loans, I was finally able to enter UC Irvine. The large university experience was quite traumatic for me being an invisible number in large classrooms of 800 students and I developed agoraphobia.
In my final year of my bachelor’s degree, I took an anthropology course from a brilliant and inspiring faculty. She became my idol and I wanted to be just like her—inspire students and engage in critical thinking about the world. I added anthropology as my major as well and added political science, classics, and women’s studies as minors. My world expanded and I could see completely new possibilities—I was mesmerized by learning and the interdisciplinarity of all the fields I was studying—they were all interconnected and it was in their interconnections that I saw meaning and possibility.
I later revised my professional trajectory and decided I wanted to be a professor, researcher, and educator so that I could open the world to others. I wanted to be like my mentor. I reset my ultimate path towards a Ph.D., earning a master’s degree in anthropology with an emphasis in feminist theory, and later, a Ph.D. in geography from UC Davis. While my pathway may have shifted, my compass continued to guide me towards service and today, I am proud to serve the inspirational faculty and students at Ohlone. I feel my educational life has come full circle with service as my compass.