Nashwa (second from left) and her fellow scholars from the Ibrahim Foundation Leadership and Dialogue Project visit Israel. During their two-week mission to study Middle Eastern poliical, cultural and economic structures, they also visited Dubai, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Due to her daring flight to freedom five years ago, Nashwa El-Sayed ’13 missed her high-school graduation in Alexandria, Egypt. At age 17, in a dramatic way, she had finally achieved her fervent desire to return to the United States, from which her father had abducted her when she was 2½. In May, she had to skip her Queens College Commencement, again for a remarkable reason. This time, she flew back to the Middle East as one of six high-achieving American college students chosen for the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project’s prestigious two-week study tour. Earlier in May she could at least be present to accept the Uncommon Courage Award from QC’s Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding.
Uncommon and courageous readily describe El-Sayed. Her own words are “Arab-Latina, future advocate for abducted children around the world, a woman interested in the Middle East, belly dancer.” While at QC, she organized an after-school camp for Arab-American children, and fenced (NCAA regionals).
“I owe all the progress to Queens College,” El-Sayed believes. “This was the perfect place for me. It was exactly what I needed: people who were really concerned for who I am.”
Who she is springs from a wrenching saga. The custody battle as a toddler. The abuse as a child in Egypt. The dawning as a pre-teen that she was a U.S. citizen. The risky repatriation at age 17. At each stage, she became more resilient and resourceful.
Her saga began as a toddler when her Egyptian father and Puerto Rican mother divorced and her mother gained custody. “In 1993, on Father’s Day, I had the day with my dad,” El-Sayed relates. “He never brought me home. He kidnapped me to Egypt. I had just some diapers and the clothes on me.” Egypt does not prosecute non-custodial parents who bring their children there. Her father and stepmothers were “very abusive, physically, emotionally, everything,” she continues. He claimed her mother was dead.
At almost 10 years old, El-Sayed was shocked to find her mother was alive and was coming for a two-week visit. Over the next seven years, she visited four more times. “I was obsessed with the idea that she is American, and I am too,” El-Sayed recalls. She prepared for “a better option” by gleaning English from Backstreet Boys lyrics and “King of Queens” subtitles. For her mom’s weekly calls, she practiced English sentences like “I love you . . . I miss you . . . I want to see you again.”
As a high school senior, when she reminded her father she wanted to study political science in the U.S., “he said political science is for men” and she would be studying business and getting engaged to the man he had picked out. Alarmed, she enlisted her mother to contact the FBI and State Department and secretly visited the U.S. Embassy to plead her case. However, a relative exposed her plans.
During a closely guarded visit to Cairo, she gained a second chance to flee. “A State Department person told me, ‘Can you leave today?’” She hesitated, afraid of the dangers. An FBI agent called saying “It’s now or never,” she relates, “the most powerful words I’ve ever heard.” At 5 a.m., an arranged van whisked her to the airport. Once more, she boarded an international flight with “nothing”—just the clothes she had on, her hijab, and $100 from her mother.
After a year back home in New York City, convinced she had to go to college, she showed up at QC’s Admissions Office. “I said, ‘Here’s all the paperwork I have. Please let me in.’” QC admitted her directly. To pay for college, she worked in a mall and for two years in QC’s Academic Advising office.
When relations at home became strained, El-Sayed withdrew her $600 savings, rented a shared apartment, and took two jobs. Her fencing coach arranged a full scholarship. Reluctantly she gave up peer mentoring at CUNY’s New Community College but kept her better-paying waitressing job.
Her goals include a diplomatic career and establishing a foundation to aid abducted children. Reflecting on her beatings, servitude, and subjugation in Egypt, El-Sayed notes “ “Maybe I came out of this thing so that I can help others who are going through this experience.”
The Ibrahim study tour took El-Sayed to Dubai, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Oman, and Saudi Arabia to examine politics, culture, and the economy. “I went on this trip thinking I could come back with an idea of what to do; I came back with a million and one ideas,” she says.
Guiding the six Americans (two each of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths) was the QC history professor who inspired El-Sayed: Mark Rosenblum, director of QC’s Center for Jewish Studies. “His perspective was very neutral; he wants us to think for ourselves,” she observes. In the West Bank, it broke her heart to see the contrast between the services Israel provides for its illegal settlers and the deprivations endured by Palestinians. However, the study tour also made her more aware of the need for a two-state solution. In Saudi Arabia, “I came in with an open mind,” notes El-Sayed, but chafed at donning the abaya. “Everyone should be who they are 24/7,” she believes.
“The freedom that I have as a woman here is like no [Arab] female in the Middle East can have,” El-Sayed has found: “to have a simple choice in life.”
What she’s reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. “It’s really helpful to see there are other people, even in fiction, jumping from one culture to another in a matter of 10 seconds,” she says.