An Egyptian human rights activist’s path to the Ivy League

Adriana Tache | SIPA Class of 2017

I’m crying, gripping my teddy bear. Only four years old, Mom comes to comfort me, but it is no use. A kid in our preschool lost both his parents to a house fire. My first moment of empathy.

On a normal Ramadan day at school in Cairo, all kids are fasting, except me. I’m the only Christian there at the age of 9. My first moment of loneliness.

At 11, finding my dad on the floor, I scream “Mom, what’s going on?” Ambulance sirens. My first moment of fear.

Ten months later, we are all moving to the U.S. from Egypt. My first hopeful good-bye.

Ten years later, I’m back in Egypt: “Bread, Freedom, Dignity. The People demand the fall of the regime!” My first moment of courage.

Last year, I’m in a classroom at SIPA, wondering how this broken world can be made right. My journey towards growth.

These are the memories of Lydia Bassaly, a 24-year-old from Cairo Egypt, who studies Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy at SIPA. Her drive to help others runs in the family. In the same year she was born, her father founded an orphanage in Egypt with only $5 in his account. The stress of managing it caused him a heart attack when Bassaly was 11. After a successful open heart surgery in the United States, he moved his family here in 2003.

Lydia’s parents made sure she had a close relationship with God

Her parents, she told me, do not have master degrees, but as it is custom among the Egyptian urban population, they graduated from college: her father went to a business college and her mother to pharmacy school. As minority Christians in a Muslim country, they focused more on religion than education and career in her upbringing “The thing my parents most cared about passing on to me was that I have a close relationship with God. They weren’t too strict about grades.”

Out of concern regarding Bassaly’s security, they were not very supportive of her career choice of human rights. Her dad has legitimate reasons to fear for her safety. “He used to be called in to meetings by security officers, which he always described as an unpleasant experience,” she explained.

Worried about tuition and living expenses, Lydia works three jobs

When it came to her school choice, her parents were worried about her ability to cover tuition and living expenses. While Bassaly was awarded scholarships to fund her undergraduate education at Georgia State University in Atlanta, she did not receive any funding from SIPA. “There’s no way for my parents to provide for my tuition. It’s so high,” she said. To make ends meet, she relies on loans and the three jobs she is currently working. “Doing three jobs is stressful. If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t so that I can focus on academia and readings for classes.”

Despite her struggle, she manages to stay motivated. “I try to tell myself not to complain, because it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own world and think you have it so bad”. She is grateful that “at the end of the day I am at an Ivy League. I have amazing family and friends. I have hope, I have an ambition, I have a goal, I have a passion, and I think that those internal attributes are worth more than anything- more than money.”

Hitting rock bottom

However, Lydia wasn’t always so upbeat. Her optimism hit rock bottom last year when she first moved to New York. She and three others planned to rent an apartment together, but at the last minute the plan failed to go through. “I had been eating cilantro salad for the 3 days to make sure I could save money to pay rent and secure the apartment,” so she was desperate when she found herself homeless. “That led me to one of the hardest points of my life. It was the moment that I lost my determination, that part of my character that I have always been proud of,” she recalled. “I began to doubt that good could really come out of such a situation.” While failing to secure an apartment in NYC is not unusual, I imagined for a moment how terrifying it must have been for the 24-year-old from out of town right before her studies began.

Keeping her struggles in perspective

Bassaly recounted how during her month without an apartment she saw a homeless man surrounded by his belongings who was applying for jobs on his laptop at Starbucks. “I looked at him and I thought: he’s been in this situation much longer than I have. There he was still trying, carrying his heavy bags on his back. I said to myself: ok, this isn’t so bad Lydia, it can be worse. You have more than you think.”

Fortunately, she was able to make friends through SIPA’s orientation. She jumped from one house to another the first two weeks. “I was carrying my toothpaste and my underwear in my bag to class, which was humbling.” For the remaining period without an apartment, a SIPA colleague generously offered her their living room. For that, Bassaly is still so grateful.

Feeling discouraged until she learned to stop comparing

Her experience at SIPA was an eye opener. She is very impressed with the caliber of students who have already contributed greatly to making the world a better place. “Some of them have started NGOs in Africa or they’ve lived with refugees for years [while] I am here and I basically graduated undergrad. It was discouraging until I learned to stop comparing.”

Bassaly ended our interview with the same genuine smile she greeted me with at the beginning.

“This is an opportunity for me to learn,” she concluded. “If I don’t learn, I will resent, and I would rather learn than resent.”

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “An Egyptian human rights activist’s path to the Ivy League

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