Upon first glance, Rayan is a confident, driven Palestinian woman. However, should you check her passport, you will find a different label: Refugee. Rayan El Hajj Ali participated in the US Department of State’s Virtual Professional Fellows Program this year. Rayan’s curious, impact-driven nature was apparent within our first zoom call. She was not afraid to share her infectious enthusiasm, curious nature and connect with other fellows. However, unlike her peers, as a refugee Rayan’s education, career and life path are riddled with roadblocks and challenges. Despite these challenges, Rayan proudly owns her heritage: “I am Palestinian, and I am so proud of who I am! I don’t want to change that. I just want my civil rights.” Refugees around the world face a number of civil rights violations, and Rayan is stepping up to the plate with the intention of making major changes for refugees.

“I am Palestinian, and I am so proud of who I am! I don’t want to change that. I just want my civil rights.”

Though both Rayan and her parents were born in Lebanon, they qualify as refugees because her grandparents fled to Lebanon in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This label may seem to be a formality; however, it comes with social, political, and economic disadvantages that have lasting impacts on individuals. For example, refugees do not have access to the same educational or employment opportunities. As a student, Rayan dreamed of graduating and attending law school; however, she was forced to change course due to Lebanese restrictions on refugees attending public Law Schools. Similarly, refugees do not have access to the same housing rights. Rayan and her family are forced to rely on a Lebanese citizen to secure housing, as refugees cannot legally own a house in Lebanon. Nearly 45% of registered Palestinian refugees live in one of the country’s 12 refugee camps, where poor living conditions compound their daily challenges. 

In 2020, Rayan took to social media to share the realities refugees and women face in Lebanon. Rayan quickly recognized the impact her voice could have. “People are really listening, watching and analyzing what you are saying,” El Hajj Ali said. Her most recent video, outlining the latest in a series of Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, reached over 1.34K in just three days. Over the course of the Professional Fellows Program, every fellow develops a community-based project aimed at stimulating the local economy and empowering their community. After establishing her presence on social media, Rayan decided to focus her #ProFellows Follow-on Project on advocating for Refugees’ and Women’s Rights. Rayan plans to paint a more accurate picture of refugees, opposing the misrepresentation of refugees taking advantage of political systems or relying on public welfare. Rayan’s goal is that everyone will begin to “understand that this is not [refugees’] fault. We are human beings. We did not randomly choose to leave Palestine or Syria or Iraq. But in order to protect our families, we had to leave our homes.” Rayan plans to develop a comprehensive social media campaign highlighting noteworthy refugees and their successes as well as daily struggles individuals face as refugees and steps towards securing civil rights for refugees. 

Despite the odds stacked against Rayan, she remains motivated and empowered by family, friends, and connections. Rayan recognizes the importance of each person’s role in the changing of stereotypes and urges everyone to learn more about refugees’ experiences – whether through listening to individuals stories, reading resources provided by organizations such as IRC, Anera, or UNRWA or looking into your own country’s policies around refugees’ rights. 

Today and every day we at Legacy International are proud to support our incredible alumni such as Rayan who are working to create a better tomorrow today. On this World Refugee Day, what will you do to support refugees and make sure everyone receives their civil rights? Click here to donate to UNRWA and check out Rayan’s work here.