Every weekend for the last twelve years Fahim Qubain would cook Middle Eastern food and watch old Egyptian movies with his 13 students, creating a home environment in his own house in the United States for his students, who were thousands of miles away from their own homes and families. He wasn’t a teacher, school principal, or university board member, but a one-man scholarship machine who wanted a better future for qualified underprivileged Palestinian students.
In April, at age 88, Dr. Qubain, founder of the Palestinian scholarship program The Hope Fund, passed away in his home in Lexington, Virginia. Since its establishment in 2001, The Hope Fund, in partnership with over 15 colleges in the United States, has helped 20 students, mostly Palestinian refugees, graduate from college with full scholarships. The Hope Fund will host another 21 students in the fall semester this year.
The program started on a far more modest scale. Dr. Qubain, who was retired from his career as a government consultant, read an article about a journalist who had funded the education of a 15-year-old Palestinian refugee.
“My dad read the article and started crying” says Helen Qubain, who currently runs the Hope Fund. Dr. Qubain wanted to do something for Palestinian refugee children, but didn’t know how.
“He got together with his old DC buddies and they all gave him same advice: ‘You need a fancy proposal’ and he was just too old to learn how to do it.” Instead Qubain went to Roanoke College and told an administrator, “I wish we had grant money, but we don’t. You should give us a full scholarship.”
And they did. Two Palestinian refugee students from Lebanon packed their bags and moved to Virginia. Three weeks later, 9/11 happened. They were the only Arabs on campus, says Qubain’s daughter. Interest in the Middle East was high, and the college appreciated having someone from the region. Both kids graduated with honors, and the school was interested in furthering their relationship with the Hope Fund.
“My father believed that no one could take away your education or the talent that’s nurtured,” says Qubain. Continuing her father’s vision, Qubain plans to further expand the program, modernize it, institutionalize it and provide a better future through higher education for poor Palestinian refugee students.
Qubain believes there are two main goals for The Hope Fund.
“On an individual level it’s about giving kids the chance to have an awesome future on a grander scale and to have a professional dynamic. Also, I think it’s about creating leadership and creating people that will transform their communities,” she said.
Yet certain debates remain unresolved within the fund: should students go back to their refugee camps once they graduate, or should they remain in the States?
“Is it better for them to have jobs here where they have more of a voice, and where they can get a job and remit money to their home countries, or is it better for them to go home? We have those debates and they are unresolved, and they are complicated,” said Qubain.
Qualified students are selected from refugee camps in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Gaza. They have to sign a pledge- unenforceable as Qubain acknowledges- that they will go “home” once they graduate. “We focus on kids who would have no future if it weren’t for the Hope Fund,” said Qubain.
“I remember being a skeptic. I didn’t think you can take a child from a refugee camp. But my dad was not to be talked out of it. And they ended up doing it,” said Qubain. Ten years later, 13 students graduated with honors and almost all got full scholarships for graduate school. Today most of the students are in PhD programs.
Mariam Ashour, a Palestinian living in Gaza City, had dreamed of going to college, but couldn’t afford it. “[The Hope Fund] absolutely changed my life for the better; it was not just a diploma but a life changing experience,” said Ashour. Today, at age 23, she is a recent graduate from Columbia College in South Carolina with a business administration degree and a minor in studio art, Ashour says that her education in the States “Made me a much more creative and critical thinker, something that I could not have obtained back home.”
Dr. Qubain, a Jordanian of Palestinian heritage, was like a father figure to many of the students The Hope Fund sponsored in the States. He frequently hosted student breakfasts at his home in Virginia and cooked the meals himself. Ashour recalls Qubain’s bountiful meals, where he often exclaimed, “[But] you guys are so skinny!”
Ashour recalls a favorite memory of Dr. Qubain asking her to make Arabic coffee, “Which I would regularly do at home with my parents. It was such a great pleasure to feel like I was at home as [if] with my parents.”
The Hope Fund encourages its students to pursue a complete higher-level education, and that’s exactly what Ashour intends to do. Today, she aspires to enrich her knowledge further by attending graduate school.
“Once I finish my studies and have sufficient finances I want to donate to the fund to support other students just like they have supported me.”