With a 4.0 grade point average, considerable activism on campus and ambition to one day become a surgeon, biochemistry major Dalal El-Barbarawi is an ideal student and superb role model for fellow graduates.
She will no doubt be thinking of accomplishments, including establishment of a vibrant Muslim student club on campus, as she addresses nearly 700 graduates and then crosses the stage for her diploma at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday, Dec. 13.
However, graduation will at best be bittersweet for the 21-year-old El-Barbarawi, whose words and actions can’t reach her father, who had been her biggest cheerleader and role model prior to developing advanced Alzheimer’s.
“It’s definitely going to be a bittersweet occasion for me,” said the student, who will talk about her Palestinian heritage and cultivation, while at Roosevelt, of what she calls a “love force” aimed at righting injustices and aiding the oppressed.
“Growing up, we were extremely close,” said El-Barbarawi of her father, a familiar figure in Chicago during the 1970s who was outspoken about rights for Palestinians. His misfortune with a chain of successful Middle Eastern restaurants targeted by protesters was written about in the book “They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby” by the late Paul Findlay, a former U.S. Congressman from Illinois.
“He always called me his ‘pride and joy’ and always had big dreams for me, and for me, he symbolizes what big dreams are all about,” said the student, a 2016 graduate of Proviso East High School who lives in suburban Northlake with her mother, four sisters and father, who needs 24-hour care.
Abdel Hamid El-Barbarawi will be at the graduation as his daughter talks about the importance of basic human decency and Roosevelt’s legacy of bringing people of all backgrounds and identities together to serve humanity.
However, he is not likely to grasp that his daughter led Palestinian advocacy at Roosevelt, just as he once headed Palestinian advocacy groups and the Organization of Arab Students at the University of Illinois Circle Campus a half a century ago.
Active in helping fellow Palestinians arriving in Chicago for more than 30 years, according to a cousin who has long known him, Barbarawi probably won’t recognize either that his daughter, as a Roosevelt student, also enjoys helping others.
“Dalal has been a lot of help, not only to me, but to a lot of people,” said Nancy Saadeh, a Roosevelt allied health student who transferred to Roosevelt from a community college in 2017. She has seen membership in the Muslim Student Organization multiply and claim a larger voice in the Roosevelt community. She has also seen large Palestinian activism efforts on campus, and is one of many students who have been tutored by El-Barbarawi in chemistry.
“I don’t think I would be where I am at today without Dalal’s help,” said Saadeh, who will graduate next year with hands-on training and certification in radiography. “I tell her (El-Barbarawi) ‘if you can’t be a doctor, no one can,’ which is something I truly believe.”
In fact, as a Roosevelt student, El-Barbarawi has made significant progress on many fronts: Of note, she has volunteered as a translator in a Roosevelt program with John Marshall Law School for Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Chicago; she has visited the United Nations in New York with a Roosevelt political science class seeking support for an international bill of rights for seniors, and has met with U.S. senators and Congressmen in Washington, D.C. for help in advancing human rights for Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and also has worked with a Roosevelt biology professor on groundbreaking soon-to-be-published research about one of the origins of prostate cancer.
A former classmate, Arian El-Taher, who received a master’s in biomedical sciences from Roosevelt in 2018, believes all of that and more are the makings for El Barbarawi to one day be an historic figure, much like her father.
“She has an ability to be both strong and warm, which is a hard combination to achieve,” he said. “When she speaks, the room becomes quiet,” he added, “and I see her as a wonderful diplomat on any number of important issues we are facing.”
However, El-Barbarawi is not at her best as she prepares for her moment in the spotlight on Friday during Roosevelt’s graduation.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m really proud of my achievements, but I’m really sad that my father can’t comprehend the growth I’ve made and the kind of person I’ve become.”
“The only thing that is keeping me going,” she added, “is the certainty I have that he would be extremely proud of me, and would want me to continue in the direction that I began at Roosevelt.”