Against All Odds

Hajer Al-Faham, ’11, is making a difference while fighting cultural stereotypes

Written by Stacy Howard
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
August 2, 2011

For Hajer Al-Faham, her life changed dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001.

Al-Faham is a first generation Iraqi who experienced firsthand heightened fears and stereotyping of Muslims that followed in the hours and days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a matter of hours Al-Faham went from a popular 8th grader to invisible.
“Every friend I had stopped talking to me, teachers too. One teacher asked if I’d like to apologize to the class for what happened that morning,” she recalls.

Al-Faham could have retreated but instead chose to face the hatred that she was subjected to head on. She began volunteering and enrolled in Running Start, a program that gives high school students the opportunity to take college courses prior to graduation.

Although she opted to skip her high school graduation ceremony because of the backlash she faced from some, Al-Faham stayed focused on her academics and community service. 
“Volunteering helped me become more successful academically,” says Al-Faham, who has volunteered at organizations including Everett Providence Medical Center Hospice, the Snohomish County Women-to-Women program and the King County Domestic Violence Unit. She also volunteered at her alma mater, Mariner High School in Everett. 

“I would much rather be telling my own story than have someone telling it for me."After earning a double scholarship to Seattle University, Al-Faham continued not only volunteering, but for the first time in years became involved in on-campus activities. She simultaneously served as president of the Muslim Student Association and Jesuit Honor Society. “I knew SU was committed to embracing diversity,” she says. “That’s why I had no concerns about being involved with both groups.” 

A 2008 trip back to Iraq inspired her to educate others about Islam. It was the first time she returned to her birth country since her family left a refugee camp in 1993. Though she was young when they fled, she said her memories are clear. “We went by foot, hitchhiked, whatever we could do to get to the Saudi Arabia border,” she says. “From the time I was born, we were on the run.” 
Saddam Hussein’s Royal Guard killed Al-Faham’s Shiite Muslim grandparents and uncles, then came after her father. With no options left, the family left everything behind and lived in the camp for four years before moving to the United States.

As she looks to life after graduation, and now as an alumna of SU, Al-Faham is considering becoming a professor, a move inspired by a class on politics in Islam.
“I was sitting in Professor Erik Olsen’s class and thought I can do this someday,” says Al-Faham, who majored in political science and women studies.

Political Science Associate Professor Erik Olsen says Al-Faham is not only one of the most amazing students he’s had, but also one of the most amazing human beings he’s met.

“I could go on and on about how much I’ve learned from her,” he says. “In class, Hajer had to do an ‘oral argument’ in the controversial case of Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld. I told her it’d be difficult for her to defend Rumsfeld over Hamdi [a detainee in the “war on terror”] but she chose to anyway and went on to give a great argument.”

Seattle University awarded Al-Faham the Archbishop G. Raymond Hunthausen Award, which recognizes an undergraduate student who embodies integrity, faith, leadership, and passion for learning. Most importantly, recipients live the Seattle University mission of being a “person for others.”

The Hunthausen award celebrates her gifts of service, justice, collaborative leadership, and academic excellence to the University and global community. 
Post-SU, Al-Faham plans to pursue a teaching career to educate and debunk myths about Islam. 
“I would much rather be telling my own story than have someone telling it for me,” she says.

Hajer Al-Faham is a 2011 graduate of Seattle University.