Commendable student gives thanks to Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser as he earns well-deserved degree
Raggi Al Hammouri has had it tougher than most people his age. While passing an exam may have been the main challenge for many university students graduating this week, he has had to overcome other, more profound challenges. Raggi has lived with muscular dystrophy, a degenerative condition, from early childhood. He is confined to a wheelchair, and his body movements are severely restricted.
Yet despite such difficulties, Raggi has determinedly pursued an education throughout his life, overcoming considerable hurdles to do so. After completing the final grade at a special needs college in Doha, Raggi’s parents went in search of a new school for him. However, owing to the severity of his condition, their applications were repeatedly rejected.
Raggi’s life could have taken a completely different turn had it not been for the generosity of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. He explains, “With the help of Her Highness Sheikha Moza, I was admitted to a private school and have been sponsored by her ever since,” he says.
Twelve years on, Raggi has graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q). The degree is a tribute to Her Highness’ kindness, to Raggi’s perseverance, and to his family’s support. “I do my assignments on my own,” he explains. “It takes much more time, because I do my own typing. It does take long, absolutely, but at one point you will be done. I hit the bottom sometimes, but my family is always there for me, and encourages me.”
Even though Raggi has overcome so many setbacks in reaching his goal, the 24-year-old Jordanian is quick to dismiss the notion that he is in any way special. “I do not see myself as different from others, so if I want to do something then I will do it. I don’t think what I am doing is exceptional or anything,” he insists.
Never one to take the easy way out, Raggi says he chose his major by narrowing down his interests and then selecting the more demanding discipline – computer science. “I decided I liked computer science and business, but went for the more challenging subject. I am interested in artificial intelligence, and software development and programming. I like teaching computers to be smart, it’s interesting,” he says. “I am currently working with Williams Technology Centre Qatar (WTCQ) on a project they are developing - a road safety simulator.”
Raggi’s drive and focus are apparent in the objectives he has set out for himself, and in his endless pursuit of knowledge. During his time at university, the conscientious student immersed himself in his love of languages by taking as many Spanish courses as he could. “I am at an advanced level, it is an easy language and the professor is my friend now,” he says nonchalantly. “He is supportive and it was one of my favourite subjects. In every course, though, I would push myself to the limit. I don’t want to stop doing research and projects, I want to do as much as possible and get some work experience before going to graduate school. I like everything to be perfect, I am a perfectionist.”
The shrewd graduate acknowledges the importance of education, but is quick to note that knowledge is not just confined to university. “You don’t just find education inside a university, but outside it also. It is good to combine both,” says Raggi. “We can see from the system in Qatar that His Highness the Amir and Her Highness are concerned about education and want the highest standards to be here in Qatar, for both Qataris and expats.”
Raggi’s gratitude for the assistance extended by Sheikha Moza is beyond measure. “She has been like a mother to me, without her I wouldn’t be here now. It is so hard to come up with words,” he says.
But Raggi has no trouble finding the words to describe the pride in his achievements felt by his relatives. “My family is pretty excited that I am graduating and I am happy too. It is an achievement for me and for them. It is not my journey alone, it is my family’s journey. It has been tough, but worth it.”
Graduating doctor grateful for being given a new lease of life
The turmoil of living in a war-torn country can force many people to abandon their dreams and aspirations, as they struggle with the realities of day-to-day survival. Having grown up during the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, this was a fate that Mohammed Al-Nufal feared he might have to accept.
“During this period, I did not have the pleasure of living an easy life or being in a stable place,” he says. “Iraq has passed through wars and hardship, which I experienced until I completed high school. I was ready to join college and pursue my dream of becoming a doctor, but I thought that my dreams were shattered because of the limited opportunities available.”
Mohammed had already proven to be an exceptional student, having graduated from the Gifted Boys School in Baghdad, but he feared that his qualifications would be worthless. “I was beginning to accept the pessimistic fact that I should give up,” he admits. “However, destiny had different plans for me.”
At the age of 18, Mohammed’s life’s course was completely altered thanks to the benevolence of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. Along with 11 of his classmates, he was offered a full scholarship by Her Highness to study in one of the top universities at Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF). In 2004, the teenagers signed up to the Academic Bridge Program for a year before choosing their field of study.
“This blessing came from Her Highness Sheikha Moza and it was my way out, a new beginning to follow my dreams,” he explains. “I knew I wanted medicine from the beginning… actually I wanted to become a famous soccer player when I was younger, but sometimes you have to recognise your limits.”
The comment is intended as a joke, but Mohammed’s smile fades as he recalls the struggles that he and his fellow students initially endured in adapting to their new life. “It was difficult for our parents and for us,” he says bluntly. “Other than the fact that we were living alone in a new country, we were always worried about their safety and called frequently to check if they were safe from explosions.”
Despite these problems, Mohammed was able to channel his energy into studying, and gave his best in appreciation of the goodwill that he had received. A year later, he was thrilled to be accepted as a pre-med student at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q).
But the horrors of his homeland were never far from his mind and, in 2006, Mohammed’s worst fears were realised when he received the devastating news that his father had been killed in Baghdad.
“His death had a great impact on me,” he concedes. Mohammed’s grief was compounded because the security situation made it impossible for him to return home to mourn . “I could not go back to see my family,” he says. “As the violence escalated, my mother and four siblings left our house in Iraq and moved to Jordan, then to Syria.”
Despite the personal tragedy, the determined student saw himself at a crossroads and made a very conscious decision to continue with his education. He maintains, “My father’s death did not break me. It made me stronger and more determined to do my best and make him proud.”
This determination has now paid off, for yesterday Mohammed took part in Hamad bin Khalifa University’s Convocation 2012, standing confidently alongside 32 other graduates from WCMC-Q. And his mother, now living safely in Qatar, was a delighted onlooker at the event.
Mohammed recalls, “When I left home, I was just a high school kid who would come back home dirty from soccer practice, and now I am graduating as a surgeon, so my mother is very, very proud.”
He remains sincerely grateful for the opportunities he has received. “I consider myself to be the fruitful tree of a seed that was planted by Her Highness Sheikha Moza in Qatar, and now I am ready to give back,” he says.
Yet Mohammed has already begun to repay the faith shown in him by Her Highness. In 2010, he gave an inspirational speech in Zurich during Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup in 2022. To a gathering of the sport’s most senior decision makers, he explained how football had the power to unite people and to change their outlook. It is an honour he will never forget. “Contributing to a successful bid and being part of an amazing team… to be able to achieve something that will change history was the best moment of my life,” he says.
The impressive graduate still finds the time to play the game he loves and, as captain of the WCMC-Q football team, he has led his side to victory on numerous occasions. “We won the university league twice,” he states proudly.
Mohammed has opted to commence his general surgery residency at Hamad Medical Corporation following the successful completion of his studies, and plans to eventually become a transplant surgeon.
Despite his past having been overshadowed by tragedy, he has every reason to feel optimistic as he looks forward. “I was going to lose my future if I stayed in Iraq,” he reflects, “and here I am now on my way to becoming a surgeon. From where I came to where I am, I hope this is just the beginning to a productive lifelong journey.”
Student aims to solve literacy problems through business models
Literacy is crucial to improving the standard of living in communities across the world. For this reason, one graduate from Afghanistan is already planning to make the most of the education he has acquired in Qatar to solve literacy problems.
Mohammad Abed Shirzai, 23, was fortunate to receive a scholarship granted by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser through UNESCO in Afghanistan. The gifted student had already achieved the highest merit by the time he finished school, but he admits that it came as a surprise to learn that he had earned a place at one of the prestigious universities in Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF).
“When I got the scholarship, it was totally unexpected,” says Mohammed. “Everything happened in two weeks. I had little information about Qatar, but I was excited and did some research. The opportunity to come here has been outstanding and it has opened a lot of doors for me.”
After five productive years of study in Doha, Mohammad was awarded his Bachelor of Business Administration from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), and he plans to use it wisely. In fact, even before coming to study in Qatar, Mohammed was involved in literacy activism and plans to continue encouraging people back home to learn. “There are a lot of people striving for education,” he says. “My father was involved in teaching there and my plan is to apply different models to solve education problems. When I came to CMU-Q I found that the curriculum is compatible with the vision I have.”
During his time at university, the student undertook four internships and worked with Reach Out to Asia on a project in 2010 that gave immigrant workers the chance to learn English at weekly classes. “We developed the curriculum with one of my teachers,” he explains. “The workers were great. They have the ability and they were happier at the end of the day.”
Mohammad was also selected as a World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Learner, to engage with delegates on literacy discussions and exchange ideas. He says, “That was a gateway for me to understand what educational problems exist in the outside world and gave me a clearer perspective of what I want to do.”
Mohammad aims to enrol in a public policy programme in the near future, one that focuses on business and education so as to enable him to achieve his mission. “I think our region is growing,” he says. “Scholarships and exchange trips will definitely promote our trust and confidence in each other, especially by helping people who cannot afford it.”
Eventually, Mohammad would also like to complete a PhD because he believes it is part of the learning cycle. One of the big lessons he took away from his time in Qatar is the importance of a multicultural society. “I am a totally different person now that I have been through five years of education. I learned a lot and interacted with many different nationalities here. Academically, I learned a lot. Culturally and socially, I learned that there are a lot of connections and commonalities which people would not know if they do not engage in a multicultural society,” he says.
For now, Mohammad plans to work in Qatar and to give back to the country that has given him a clear outlook on life. “I think Qatar Foundation is doing a wonderful job inviting people from all over the world. I have received great hospitality and learned a lot from the Qatari people and society. I especially want to thank His Highness the Amir and Her Highness Sheikha Moza for their generosity and I hope more people can continue to come here, learn and develop greater relations with Qatar.”
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