When the graduation parties broke up on Sunday in Durham, many Duke University grads packed up their belongings and headed to their parents’ homes or celebratory vacations.
Not Safaa al-Saeedi. She is unable to return to her family in Yemen, the Middle Eastern country where war has raged this spring. A no-fly zone means commercial flights aren’t going in or out of the nation.
Her relatives were not there at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Sunday to see their daughter graduate with distinction and receive a degree in political science. Her father, who had encouraged her to study in the United States, had planned to make the trip.
“I really wanted to share that day with him, you know?” al-Saeedi said. “Because my dad did so much to make my education possible.”
She has not seen her parents since the summer after her freshman year at Duke. Her family moved out of the Yemen capital city of Sanaa after violence reached their neighborhood. The windows are blown out of the home where she grew up, she said.
“The idea of going back to my house is no longer entertained,” she said.
The country has been plunged into chaos in recent months as Houthis, the Shiite rebel group, ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. The fighting got worse with bombing campaigns by a Saudi-led coalition. Multiple media outlets reported intense airstrikes during the weekend and early this week. A humanitarian pause in the fighting was due to start Tuesday.
Al-Saeedi has kept up with friends and family through Facebook, email and Skype. For a while, she said, she followed every news development, until it became too much to handle.
She would occasionally discuss the situation with a Saudi friend on campus. They would meet to catch up on the news and prop each other up, al-Saeedi said: “How do we move forward? How do we remain hopeful in the middle of this?”
For now, al-Saeedi has made plans to visit a friend in Virginia next week. Then she will return to Durham in the summer, where she is doing research for professors at Duke and Rutgers University.
For her senior thesis, al-Saeedi wrote about the resistance to reinterpreting Islam for modern societies. For the paper, she traveled to Lebanon and Egypt, where she interviewed Muslim clerics. She found that they weren’t as resistant to change as she had expected, and that there were complex and interconnected forces at work.
Next year, she plans to apply to doctoral programs in political science at U.S. universities. Ultimately, she said, she will return to the Middle East, with her passion for finding solutions to the problems there.
“The struggles of my region have given my life a purpose,” she said. “That mission can’t be accomplished without education.”