They say the shortest distance between two people is a story. I say the greatest distance you can travel in the least amount of time is by asking people about their names. When curious people ask me ‘What’s your name?’ I try to make it worth their while. My name is Rahaf. It means ‘kindness’ in Arabic. Most days my name is ‘the future doctor’ at home, ‘the family’s dream’ as my dad said the other day. But I’m actually a refugee, a schoolgirl who kept moving from one school to another because of the war in her country. My name is ‘I’ve passed all of my exams with the highest grades I could get, understanding three different education systems in three different countries’.

 — Extract from ‘The stories we tell ourselves’ by Rahaf Almabaid, published in the book ‘We are New Zealand’.

It’s an unusually warm and busy day in Dunedin. OWeek has brought students from all over the country and the University of Otago campus is buzzing. First year graduates are discovering their new place of study, admiring the old buildings and enjoying the unusually pleasant weather.

Among the many students on campus is 20 years old Rahaf Almabaid. Unlike many of the young people on campus today, this is not Rahaf’s first year at university. She knows the best coffee spots, walks with confidence and points out where her lectures take place.

Rahaf has always been ambitious. From a very young age, she dreamed of going to university. When the war in Syria broke out and her family was forced to flee, Rahaf did not stop pursuing her goals.

“I never thought the war would happen to us. My parents had already set a plan for me – they wanted me to get educated, go to university and graduate, all in the same place. Somehow it didn’t happen, but things are still good,” explains Rahaf.

As the conflict reached the outskirts of her neighborhood, she recalls: “My granddad said ‘Okay, enough is enough, we need to move!’. So, most of us moved to Lebanon in 2013. It all happened in 24 hours.”

While life in Lebanon was relatively normal for Rahaf, who was able to attend school, the future for most Syrian refugees there is not promising. So, when the opportunity to settle in New Zealand was offered to Rahaf’s family, they were thrilled.

“Once I heard about the possibility of moving to New Zealand, I did my research. The first thing I found was University of Otago – which is so weird! I got excited and thought, ‘Maybe it will be my university one day?’,” explains Rahaf.

Little did she know that the University of Otago was indeed going to be the place where she would pursue her dream to become a doctor. When Rahaf settled in Dunedin in March 2016 with her family, she picked up high school where she had left off in Lebanon and worked hard.

“I dream to be a doctor and help the community – [I want to] do it for my parents, who sacrificed everything for me and my brother. They wanted us to have these opportunities and they get so excited whenever we do something new, so I’m going for it.”

Thanks to her hard work and excellent grades, Rahaf was able to get into Health Science at the University of Otago and win two different scholarships, all the while working part-time.

“I did Health Science first year last year. It was so hard – students generally say it’s the hardest course. But with COVID-19 restrictions and the lack of face to face learning opportunities, it was even harder. I still appreciate the experience"

While Rahaf passed all her first-year papers, she didn’t get an offer from the course she wanted – Medicine. Rahaf’s determination means she will pursue her dream to study medicine, no matter what. She’s enrolled this year to start Biomedical Science, majoring in functional human biology.

“After the two years, I will try to apply again to get into medicine. I’m still very keen to pursue this – I am passionate.”

Nothing will stop Rahaf from achieving her dreams – her story is far from over.