Inspiring grads: Facing new battles after fleeing civil war in Syria

Dalal Orfali

Dalal Orfali (Photo: Fan Wang)

En Español

In the past six years, Dalal Orfali has faced more adversity than many see in their lifetimes. She fled Syria as war erupted around her, struggled to adapt to the U.S. academic system, then was forced to postpone her studies after being diagnosed with cancer.

“I had to go through all of these things, and I found a spot of light to keep me going,” said Orfali, a senior in communication.

Orfali was born in the United States, but spent the majority of her life living in Syria. She was in her third year of journalism school at the University of Damascus in 2012 when the Syrian Civil War escalated and her parents decided she should move to the United States. She settled in Florida, where she met her husband, Fouad Kutuby, a physician.

“Both of us left a country where we had all of our memories, and we decided to start here from the beginning,” she said.

“Once you have an opportunity in this country, you can shine.”

They moved to Chicago in 2014, and she enrolled at Harold Washington College before transferring to UIC in 2016.

“I found it really hard to understand the academic system here,” she said. “It took time to look for financial resources and understand aid. And none of my credits transferred.”

“But I do not regret it at all. The academic world here in the United States gives you opportunities to do what you like.”

Orfali speaks three languages (English, Arabic and Spanish) and learned a fourth — French — so she could speak with her host family when she studied abroad in Switzerland. With help from a U.S. State Department Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship, she studied international relations and multilateral diplomacy there in the summer of 2017.

When she returned, she began what was to be her final academic year at UIC, as well as an internship with Sen. Dick Durbin’s office. But a lymphoma diagnosis in fall 2017 forced her to leave her internship and take the spring semester off to focus on her health.

“I finished the semester with the remaining energy that I had,” she said.

Still, she kept busy. She learned new hobbies and focused on writing a book about her experience fighting cancer. The book, “The Tale of the Beauty and the Beast: Memories of a Cancer Survivor,” is set to be published in Arabic and she hopes to have it translated into English, too.

It’s been seven months since her last chemotherapy session, and she is now focused on regaining her strength and finishing her studies. She recently ran her first 5K, crossing that item off the bucket list she created when she was undergoing chemotherapy.

“I fought and I came back in fall full of life and full of strength and ready to graduate,” she said.

During her final semester, she’s also a press intern in the Chicago Office of the Mayor.

“It’s been a great experience,” she said.

After graduation, she plans to focus on her book while planning a move to Memphis, Tennessee, where her husband will train in critical care at the University of Tennessee.

“It’s a new chapter,” she said. “Every time I think of Chicago, so many memories will come along.”

Orfali recently shared her struggles on a panel providing advice to first-year LAS students.

“I told them, just when you feel that you need motivation, remember that 26-year-old student who has not graduated yet who is going to graduate this semester after going through all of that,” she said.

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