Marwan Safar Jalani ’20 became the first Yale recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship for the Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine region on Wednesday.
Safar Jalani and Ali Daher, who is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are the two prize winners this year. The award recognizes exemplary character and academic achievement of college students from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon or Palestine who have had at least five years of education in one of these countries. Since the award’s creation in 2016, seven students have received the scholarship. This honor is part of the larger Rhodes Scholarships awards, which are given to 32 students from the United States and U.S. territories. Safar Jalani, as one of two winners of the Rhodes Scholarship for the Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine (SJLP) region, will receive the opportunity to study at the University of Oxford, a venture which the scholarship will fund.
“This process has taught me the importance of having a community rooting for me … from professors and teaching assistants dedicated to my education and self-development to staff and students who fully believe in my ability to pursue my dreams,” Safar Jalani said. “Above all, I owe it to my family who persevered despite the challenges of forced displacement to allow me to be where I am now.”
According to the press release, hundreds of students from the region applied for the award, and the two recipients were selected after three rounds of interviews with leaders, policy makers and academics in the region.
Safar Jalani, a political science major, was born and raised in Al-Qaboun, Damascus and left Syria in 2012 due to the war. He initially moved to Egypt, then Turkey, before attending the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. During his time at Yale, he worked at the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, the Bronx Defenders and Human Rights Watch in New York. Safar Jalani also served on the United World College Syrian National Committee and as president of the Yale Refugee Project.
According to the scholarship website, the scholars are chosen not only for their academic achievements, but for “their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential for leadership in whatever domains their careers may lead.”
“Character is also a large part of their consideration: kindliness, courage and unselfishness are really important to them,” said Rebekah Westphal, assistant dean of Yale College and director of fellowship programs. “Anyone who knows Marwan knows that he exhibits these traits in spades.”
Safar Jalani’s application discussed moving to Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and eventually to the United States. Safar Jalani said that his journey has taught him to look at the world comparatively and to “draw social and political patterns between the countries that hosted [him].”
Safar Jalani began his application in the summer, and he received support from the Office of Fellowships. He said he took advantage of Yale’s liberal arts curriculum. According to Safar Jalani, he realized late that he was interested in comparative politics.
“Applying for the Rhodes Scholarship is an opportunity for me to go in depth in the topics I’m interested in academically,” said Safar Jalani. “Having two years of my life researching something I deeply care about is very important for me. It allows me to take the space and time to write and use the resources that Oxford provides.”
At Oxford, Safar Jalani will study comparative government, specifically the potential to build institutions that Syria needs whether they be public, political or economic. He hopes to learn about what services could benefit the region and how organizations could offer them.
In the future, Safar Jalani hopes that his studies at Yale and Oxford will prepare him to work in think tanks and international human rights organizations to make his research more accessible to those in need of help.
Safar Jalani is the first Yale student to win this award and said he was grateful for help from the fellowships office and Westphal, who guided him throughout the process.
“It’s always wonderful for students to be awarded and recognized with a fellowship,” said Westphal. “I want to encourage more Yale students to consider applying for postgraduate and other fellowships as there are many to choose from.”
When asked about what this award means to him, Safar Jalani said that it recognizes his unique upbringing and identity as both Syrian and American.
Since leaving Syria, Safar Jalani said that the United States has become a home to him.
“I left Syria when I was 15 in 2012, and to have left Syria for such a long time and to be selected to represent Syria is an honor that I’m ready for and proud of,” said Safar Jalani.
The first scholars arrived at Oxford in 1903.
Correction (Nov. 16): This article has been changed to more accurately reflect what the awards recognize.