Hourie Tafech, a doctoral student in Rutgers University–Newark’s Division of Global Affairs program, and a second-generation Palestinian refugee, was one of six women from the U.S. and Canada recently awarded a prestigious Margaret McNamara Education Grant (MMEG).
The MMEG’s are given annually to women from developing countries, regardless of statehood status, who are at least 25 years old and enrolled at universities in the U.S., Canada, South Africa and Latin America. The grants provide $15K to support each recipient’s studies.
"I am grateful to receive this grant to help with my expenses and studies. It was such a blessing,” said Tafech, 29. “It’s nice to get recognized for my work and also a great responsibility to continue so that I can pass it down to others.”
Tafech’s road to RU-N and the McNamara grant has been remarkable, and unexpected.
She was raised in the Ein El Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon, the largest Palestine refugee camp in the country, which receives services in part from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and she attended U.N. schools growing up.
Tafech’s grandparents fled the city of Safad, in Northern Palestine, in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war and since then have lived in different camps and cities across Lebanon, where both of Tafech’s parents were both born and continue to live. The family’s home is in the Ein El Hilweh camp, though Tafech’s parents currently live 10 minutes away. Her father is a shoe repairer who recently began working as a security officer; her mother is a homemaker. She has three siblings, including an older sister, 31, who teaches at the United Nations schools for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; a brother who is 22 and works at a barbershop in London; and another, 19, who is studying medicine in Cuba.
Tafech studied graphic design at Lebanese International University on a scholarship. In 2014 she married and moved with her then-husband to the small, central-Mediterranean island country of Malta, where he pursued his university studies and she earned an advanced diploma in Marketing at Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST).
It’s nice to get recognized for my work and also a great responsibility to continue so that I can pass it down to others.
While there Tafech volunteered with Migrant Women Association Malta, a group that empowers migrant women by providing services to help them integrate into Maltese society. Along with fellow MCAST students from countries like Eritrea, Somalia and Libya, she also co-founded Spark-15, the first youth refugee–led organization in Europe, where she advocated for refugees' access to higher education and the job market in her new home.
"We were 15 young people in 2015, sharing our thoughts at a Global Youth Consultation pilot program run in Malta and 40 other countries by UNHCR,” said Tafech. “We found that we all faced common challenges with our refugee status, no matter where we came from or what color we were. And so we decided to start an organization to make change and named ourselves Spark-15, because we were a small idea that could become big.”
Tafech has since gained international recognition for her work. She was selected as one of 40 young leaders to represent young refugees at the UNHCR annual consultation in Geneva, where she helped draft a young-refugee policy proposal that was submitted to the U.N. Secretary General in 2016. She also was invited by the European Parliament in Malta to speak about her journey as a refugee woman.
In 2016 RU-N Professor Kyle Farmbry, who was then Dean of Rutgers Graduate School–Newark, visited Malta to research refugees and migration in the Mediterranean. He attended a Spark-15 meeting and became interested in the group’s advocacy work. In early 2017, Farmbry invited Tafech to visit RU-N to talk about Spark-15's work, and afterward he and some colleagues encouraged her to apply to the school’s Global Affairs Graduate Program. She was accepted and started in fall of that year.
Tafech finished her course work and passed her exams in 2019. Before Covid-19 struck, she’d planned to focus her dissertation on refugee entrepreneurship in Palestinian camps in Lebanon, paying special attention to female entrepreneurs. Because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, she’ll instead explore refugee entrepreneurship in U.S. communities, but once she defends her dissertation, she’ll return to her original research topic.
In the meantime, Tafech was awarded a $10K dissertation fellowship by Vassar College to teach and do research as part of a refugee initiative known as the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education, a group consisting of Vassar, Bard, Bennington and Sarah Lawrence colleges and The New School, working in partnership with the Council for European Studies.
Tafech ultimately wants to create a startup to support female entrepreneurs in Middle East refugee camps. She’s taking the first steps toward realizing that dream by teaming up with Farmbry’s new nonprofit, Global Educator Network, which brings together educators from around the world to share best practices and serve marginalized and underrepresented groups. Tafech is submitting a strategic plan to set up a free pre-school and work on female entrepreneurship in the refugee camp where she grew up in Southern Lebanon.
“You need good early-childhood education and childcare, along with professional training, for women to be entrepreneurs,” said Tafech. “One can’t happen without the other.”
As for her whirlwind transition to the U.S. and RU-N, Tafech has begun to take stock in her progress and is very grateful.
"I was hesitant to come do a Ph.D. in a new place, in a new subject, with a new language. I wasn’t sure I was up to the level I needed to be at,” said Tafech. “Kyle’s support and encouragement were critical, as was the help I’ve received from others here. It was a lot at the start, and I couldn’t believe all this was happening, but after the first semester was over, I was able to look back and say, ‘Wow, I did that, and now I’m okay to go.’”