Biology student recognized for work to end racism
By JULIE HEFLIN
Rawan Saleh is a sophomore student majoring in public health with a minor in biology. A first-generation immigrant from Jordan, Rawan plans to eventually apply to medical school and work as an activist in the health sector. She has a passion for social justice, developing speeches focused on ending racism toward minorities, particularly Arabs and Muslims. Rawan shares more about her life with UofL News.
UofL News: You are a first-generation immigrant from Jordan. Tell us about your heritage and how you came to the United States, and ultimately the University of Louisville.
I was eager to participate in a lot of national speaking contests. I’d only arrived in America from my native Jordan three years prior, after being well-known for that kind of talent, but of course, in Arabic. When my family left, I was just on the verge of becoming a television star. I have been on the radio, and I went to ‘Arabs Got Talent,’ as my Mother would tell people she meets.
After moving to Louisville, I first attended the Newcomer Academy, a school for students who speak English as a second language. After one year, I was ready to move on to Fern Creek High School.
Jordan is a safe place, however, college education there is expensive. Here it’s expensive, too, but there are more opportunities to go to college because of scholarships. Jordan is a beautiful country, with a mix of the ancient Roman world, and the beauty of the modern world all in one place.
UofL News: Explain your passion for activism and social justice. What type of activism, specifically, are you involved in?
As a Muslim woman, I promote an understanding of Islam primarily through education and outreach. I have spoken at numerous events in school, my local community, in competitions and in festivals.
My biggest accomplishment was winning the 2018 New York Times Generation Z competition and being featured on the online section, and New York Times Print, where teachers around the nation use my statement and picture to make lesson plans for their students.
My statement reads: “In this terrible moment, all I want is to be a plain old American teenager. Who can simply mourn without fear. Who doesn’t share last names with a suicide bomber. Who goes to dances and can talk to her parents about anything and can walk around without always being anxious. And who isn’t a presumed terrorist first and an American second.”
Just last year, I also have seen the same statement and my picture featured on 11 other national websites, as well as in discussions around the 2020 elections.
UofL News: You have given speeches at both the national and international levels, correct? Talk about your message and who you hope to influence through your words.
My message is simple: it is to end explicit racism toward minorities, especially Arabs and Muslims.
Every day, I receive emails from students and teachers around the nation who implemented my statement and picture in their school lessons, and they tell me about the impact I made changing their perspective.
When I won the New York Times Generation Z competition, everyone at my school knew of my story, especially my principal, who encouraged students to talk about these types of issues and changed things around in our school. We have a diversity festival at our school where we celebrate and talk about diversity. I also was invited to speak at the Louisville festival of faith, local events, including my mosque, KUNA, and numerous events at my school, where people support me and tell me that I inspire them.
UofL News: You were selected as a top 20 under 20 from the Arab American Foundation. Tell us about this honor.
20 Under 20 in 2020 is a celebration of accomplished young Arab Americans. The program spotlights students (16–20 years old) who achieved spectacular success in academics, work/internships, community service, extracurricular activities (such as clubs, sports, music, arts and writing). Also, the award acknowledges achievements demonstrating, but not limited to, outstanding leadership, dedication to a career path, new initiatives, and commitment to Arab American heritage and culture.
UofL News: Anything else you’d like to share with us?
I have published my own children’s book, From Lina to the World: Inspired by true events. It’s a form of activism for health minorities and what they face during the Covid-19 pandemic. I also give free English conversational lessons to more than eight-thousand students around the globe for Arabic speakers.