Alumni Spotlight: Leena Zahra

"Try different areas, try different things," says Leena Zahra, 2015 alum and Middle East & Islamic Studies minor

Written by Emily Ward, Linguistics and East Asian Languages and Culture double major

  • photo of Leena ZahraBA in International Studies (2015), with a regional concentration in the Middle East
  • minors in Economics; Middle East & Islamic Studies (MEIS)
  • works as the Community Programs Coordinator for the Karam Foundation, which develops aid programs for Syrian families
  • recipient of the 2018 18 of the Last 9 Award for outstanding alumni

What Middle East and Islamic Studies class had the greatest impact on you?

"Every International Studies course I took at Miami was instrumental, but ITS 402N - Problems of the Middle East, with Dr. Mark Peterson was invaluable because it gave me an understanding of how to do full analysis, policy papers, and full reports of how aid organizations respond to the onset of a crisis. I actually had to do a very similar policy report in my graduate studies as well as a consultative report to one of the biggest refugee aid organizations in the world. I took a lot of the tools from this class with me.

"The way that we formulated our thesis at the end of that course prepared me in many ways going on to that next step in higher education. And I think even if you don’t immediately go on to graduate school or law school or whatever route you take, a MEIS class will definitely help you in any sort of personal or professional endeavors."

Development and humanitarian work seems to be at the core of your efforts. How do you see your MEIS minor as contributing to that work?

Leena Zahra (right) with the Mohammed family

"Drawing from my personal connections to what's going on in Syria, it was good to understand the history of the region and the community. What had started happening in Syria was largely correlated to the Arab Spring and its aftermath, so it was really beneficial having a better grasp not only of actors that were involved within Syria, but also the neighboring countries in the Middle East and North Africa and their responses. It also allowed me to see the variety of responses and how that works on a cultural level and whether culture has a factor.

"You know, we often hear about ethnic division, and that sometimes humanitarian crises maintain the course of how they run. My MEIS classes definitely shaped my understanding not just at a state level, but also culturally, between certain affected populations, and generally, in which the international community sees and responds to any sort of insecurity and unrest in the Middle East. I'm very happy that I had a specific focus in the Middle East, but I really encourage students to apply from different disciplines — it definitely helps you understand why actors and governments carry out the actions they do and how the global community responds to or is complicit in how these humanitarian crises play out."

Did you work closely with any professors?

"[Associate teaching professor of global & intercultural studies] Dr. Melanie Ziegler. One hundred percent, I can't advocate Dr. Ziegler enough.

"Even in the work that I'm doing now, it's so important to have mentors who see your strengths and weaknesses, showing you the whole realm of possibilities. Knowing Dr. Ziegler was not only one of my favorite things about Miami, but looking back on my life overall, she's been a huge factor in shaping me as the person I am today. Although we have completely different interests and areas of study, focusing in different parts of the world, I was able to really benefit from understanding Dr. Ziegler's interests. I actually attended a J-Term Cuba trip with her and [associate professor of Global & Intercultural Studies] Dr. Walt Vanderbush, and it was so great. Of course, it's not related to my focus in the Middle East, but I gained a new perception. What’s so great about Miami's study abroad and away programs is that you can explore different disciplines.

"One thing that I wish I would have done more, and what I encourage students to do, is to try different areas, try different things, even if you're focused on one region of the world. The beauty here is that you can apply those experiences or those understandings of affected populations to your interests. That has allowed me, personally and professionally, to stand out. You gain an understanding of all the different dimensions, whether it's covered in political science or economics or architecture. Having that multidisciplinary approach and cultural understanding really does help you in the long run, which I love that Miami, the Department of Global & Intercultural Studies, and the MEIS minor provide."

Do you have any advice for students who are considering an MEIS minor?

Leena Zahra (left) and a friend while studying abroad in Switzerland

"There's no clear route. You can go about it so many different ways, so I definitely encourage students to think about that, because although I went straight into my Master's afterwards, I struggled. I really encourage students not to be discouraged with setbacks, because that led me to where I am now. I developed our U.S. program for the Karam Foundation and began to oversee it within a year.

"I've only been with this organization a year now, but I brought my initiative. I pitched the idea that there's a really big need to support families that are resettled in the U.S. I took initiative and developed this program, but I didn't study nonprofit management! I also put on fundraising events, but I don't have a fundraising background. So, you really don't know what's possible. Just get out of your comfort zone, relish even in the struggles, and you'd be surprised about what you'd find.

"There is need in all parts of the world, so you'll find your fit, your role, and your organization, no matter how small. Anything is possible. That's what's so great about the MEIS minor (and the International Studies major as well!) — you can really find what you’re passionate about, but also have a huge impact on the world."

What would you say to those who are looking to pursue humanitarian work?

"Really think outside the box if you're exploring the humanitarian sector. It can get really overwhelming, but don't be discouraged. If it says you need 20 years in the NGO field and a Master's, there are ways to go about that. If you don't have the financial means to travel, you can find things locally.

"When I came back from my Master's program in London, I wanted to bring those experiences and give back to my community. There are Syrian refugee families that are resettled all across the UK and the US, even though it's a small percent. There are really incredible relationships that you can build just in your own backyard. And there's a huge need. It's the largest humanitarian crisis of our time, so you can use your skills.

"People always ask me how they can get involved. I always say even if you don't know the language, just bring your skills and your passion, your drive. Affected populations and families, at the end of the day, are so appreciative. They just want to share their stories in a humanizing and dignified way, besides what might be portrayed in the news or media. And through that you are building some of the most powerful connections, hearing the most powerful stories, and really having some life-changing and deep impact work."

[November 2018]

If you are interested in learning more about the MEIS minor, contact the program director, Dr. Matthew Gordon ( or visit the Department of Global and Intercultural Studies main office in 120 MacMillan Hall.