At 12 years old, Rama Youssef fled her home in Damascus, Syria and faced bullying from American middle schoolers. At 16, she paved her way into De Salle North Catholic High School, in North Portland.
In March 2012, Youssef, recalled an exploding bomb close to where she attended middle school.
“It was then that my mother decided we had to leave,” Youssef said.
Her mother chose to seek asylum in Germany and her father remained in Syria, where he still resides. Youssef joined her older sister in America, who had previously married a Syrian- American man. That summer of 2012, she arrived in San Diego on a tourist visa.
Youssef started seventh grade in San Diego, speaking no English. She was anxious and shy, she revealed. Her classmates targeted her for being a foreginer.
“I was called a terroist by some of them,” she said.
But life got better for her. She made friends and became fluent in English. She felt as if her life got better by her second year of highschool.
Then in 2016, Youseef, her sister, and her sister’s husband all moved to Oregon, after her sister’s husband obtained a job at a furniture store in Portland.
Following the move, it was the summer of 2016 when Youssef worked at the Subway franchise, on North Interstate Avenue, where she became intrigued in the old-fashioned brick De Salle private school, a few blocks away.
Youssef was not sure if she would get admitted, as the school rarely permitted outside transfers.
She sealed her chance, after meeting with the school’s president, Tim Hennessy.
“There was this young girl on my couch, and she started to tell her story, she started to cry,” he recalled, who retired from De Salle last December. “She really touched my heart. Her story touched my heart.”
Youssef began her junior year at the school a few days later.
The school’s untraditional curriculum offers classes only for four days a week and requires students to work one day a week with a Portland-area business. Youssef worked with Williamette Week and became involved with numerous social justice issues. She advocated rights for immigrants and volunteered with Syrian refugees who recently resettled in Oregon.
Although she was experiencing opportunities, her immigration status was another obstacle to endure. Her status allowed her to work and live in America without fear of deportation, but did not allow her to recieve finanical aid.
De Salle president and Stephanie Barnhart, a friend and mentor of Youssef’s, encouraged her to try for finincial aid. Youssef was persistent with applying for schools and scholarships.
“She completely worked her butt off,” said Barnhart, who helped edit more than 24 scholarship applications Youssef submitted.
Her hardwork eventually paid off. California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, CA, offered her a full scholarship of $40,000 a year. However, she still has to deal with the costs of room and board, which escalated to another $15,000.
With that, Youssef had to work three jobs. She was a cashier at Dick’s Sporting Goods, a tennis instructor for kids, and a receptionist at Williamette Week.
She also started a GoFundMe page to help cover her room and board, which raised more than $10,000.
According to Youssef, the hardest thing she has faced was figuring out how to pay for college.
“There were moments when I thought it wasn’t possible,” she said.
Overall, she is grateful for this opportunity. She hopes to become a dentist in the future.
“America’s thrown a lot of opportunities my way,” she said. I’ve taken every single one of them. I want to give back to my country and help those in need with dental care. I want to be part of organizations that go to developing countries, risking their lives to help others. I want to work hard to give my parents better lives and get the chance to see them again.”