Zahraa Alfatlawi epitomizes “Yes, and” when it comes to her present, her future, and how she can be of service. A senior at Central High School, where she is President of the Honors Business Marketing Program and Chief Science Officer, Zahraa is also a Phoenix College dual-enrollment student in the Achieving College Education (ACE) program, where she has earned a whopping 42 college credits from her two years in the program. ACE students attend class on Saturday mornings during the school year and Monday through Thursday during a summer intensive in the month of June.
If that sounds like a lot, that’s just Zahraa getting started. She identifies an opportunity–either an existing program like Duke University’s Bioethics in Global Surgery Pre-College Summer Program or a chance to create a program to support those in need–and takes action. At Duke, she learned about global health with a focus on global surgery access and discussed and debated case studies about global health ethics. At Central High School, she founded Zen Den, a mental health club that meets weekly to discuss mental health topics and provide stress relieving activities to students, which includes a Zen garden on campus with funds provided by Phoenix Union High School District (PXU) Superintendent Chad Gestson. She’s also a peer counselor at Teen Lifeline answering calls and texts for the suicide hotline.
Zahraa is a woman with a vision, pursuing a medical degree in Global Health and a minor in business. She recently sat down with Mathew Blades for his podcast Learn From People Who Lived It to talk about the mental health support she provides students at Central with Zen Den and will be featured in the upcoming 2023 PXU Magazine This is Who We Are. She’s a finalist for the prestigious Gates Foundation Scholarship as well as the Outstanding Youth Leader Award Scholarship and Education Forward Scholarship and has college admission offers from Barnard, Smith, USC and other colleges. While we could go on about Zahraa’s accomplishments, we are eager for you to hear from Zahraa in her own words, from a narrative she began in her ACE English 102 class and has transformed into a personal statement for college and scholarship applications. For National Arab American Heritage Month, let us celebrate Zahraa’s accomplishments–yes!–and, as educators, let us keep working every day to fight racism and ignorance in all its forms.
"Are you hot in there?" a tall classmate with a clean-collared red polo shirt asked, referring to my hijab. I thought, it's 110 degrees outside in Phoenix, Arizona; the devil is practically our best friend. I felt the eyes of every single person in that cold rectangular classroom glare at me as if I was being cross-examined and they were just waiting for me to break. "I actually have an air conditioning unit up here," I replied. As a hijabi woman, I'm creative in my response to ignorance. Laughter plagued the room. As I joined my classmates in their glee, hoping they were laughing with me, I felt a deep hole in my stomach.
Ironically, this comment is one of the better ones I've received. The classic, "Go back to your country," is not very creative, nor is it correct, because I was born in suburban Michigan. "Terrorist," "Rag head," "Towel head," and, one time at the airport, "SHE HAS A BOMB!" My only crime was wearing a hijab.
In response to these experiences, I initially attempted to “blend in” and become microscopic, mirroring my peers and consequently losing my identity. But I knew my family hadn’t fled the Iraq war and suffered through a refugee camp for five years just for me to “blend in”. I had always assumed that when people were looking at me, they were looking at my hijab and thinking negative thoughts. One interaction with a stranger changed all that. I was having lunch with my family at an outdoor restaurant. I looked up to see a woman coming towards me. I could feel myself tensing up. When she reached me, to my surprise, she said, “You wear the hijab beautifully.” In that moment, my world shifted. I began to use fashion to express myself as a Muslim woman while redefining what modest beauty means to me. I went from wearing sweatshirts to hot pink pantsuits. I experimented with different colors, patterns, hijabs, and accessories. Now, when people stare at me, I think, They are obviously admiring my cute outfit.
While others view me as a fashionista, I have deep-seated passions I’ve held for most of my life. I’ve always been curious about what makes people behave the way they do, what connects our mind and body, and why some people receive better healthcare than others - often depending on where they live. As a child, I gravitated towards $2 volcano science kits rather than barbies and toy kitchen sets. An uncle once told me, "Zahraa, women can't be surgeons. How are you going to take care of your kids?" I responded, “Why don’t you ask my brother that same question?” It had never occurred to me that I was incapable of pursuing my passions because I am a woman.
Despite others' opinions, I continue to pursue my dreams. I eventually worked my way up from a $2 science kit to pipetting blood samples at the University of Arizona RENEW (Recovery by Engaging and Empowering Women) lab. My project focused on whether oxytocin could help prevent postpartum women with a history of opioid use from relapsing into substance abuse. As I shadowed study participants in my research program, they shared how they never felt heard by their doctors and were stigmatized due to their history. I related to the feeling of being misunderstood and overlooked by those in a position to help, remembering my time in a cold rectangular classroom.
Some may say being a Muslim woman in medicine is a disadvantage and that people won't take me seriously. That I will be overlooked. That I will not be relatable to the “average” citizen. I think the opposite is true. I will be a better doctor, a more empathetic physician, a better listener, because I am a Muslim woman. I know how it feels to be misheard, to be judged, and to feel lonely and I will strive to create a caring inclusive environment around me.
Whether my eighth grade class was laughing with me or at me, it doesn’t matter. In 20 years, I will look in the mirror, and smile–not because I look fantastic in my hijab and bedazzled pink lab coat. I will smile because I know anything is possible for those young Muslim girls with a $2 science kit.
Check out PC's ACE program and find out how first generation college students are earning college credits while still in high school. And join PC in recognizing National Arab American Heritage Month this April. Read President Biden's Historic Proclamation on Arab American Heritage Month celebrating the immeasurable contributions of Arab Americans and those who trace their ancestry to North Africa and the Middle East, while also acknowledging that bias and discrimination continues against these communities.