Graduating Iraqi refugee’s best day at Mac was a life-changing conversation

Masarra Al Dakka standing outdoors with her arms crossed looking directly at the camera

Masarra Al Dakka became an Iraqi refugee 10 years ago when her family boarded a bus in Mosul bound for Istanbul.  

At Wednesday afternoon’s convocation ceremony, Al Dakka will become a McMaster University graduate with an honours bachelor of science in biology. 

It’s a journey that puts the 25-year-old at the head of her class for tenacity, resilience and a well-honed sense of humour. 

“Being a refugee is awful,” says Al Dakka. “I don’t recommend it.” 

There were long and lonely days, starting with that 30-hour bus ride across Iraq’s northern border into Turkey. There were harrowing moments, grinding poverty and soul-crushing bureaucracy – or what Al Dakka calls “endless hoops and loops.”

Yet there was also her best day at McMaster, with a conversation that explained and changed her life. And there was a biology prof who said three words that meant everything to Al Dakka – “you belong here.”

While Al Dakka was a handful at home – “I’m a middle child, that’s what we do” – she stood out at school. She was an A+ student because her parents and extended family left her no other choice. “If I wasn’t a good student, I’d be in trouble.”

Coaches at her school kept trying to recruit Al Dakka for the basketball team. “I was taller than most of the other kids.” Her parents and aunt would remind Al Dakka that studying was her extracurricular.  

Al Dakka’s parents believed education was the best path to a better life for their two daughters and son. But they feared that path would be taken away by ISIS. So, they joined the tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who were seeking refuge in Turkey. They left everything behind and boarded the bus. It would be four years before Al Dakka was back in a classroom. 

Refugees at that time weren’t allowed to work and couldn’t attend Turkish public schools. Al Dakka’s parents couldn’t afford to send even one of their kids to private school. 

Masarra Al Dakka standing outdoors looking at the camera
Masarra Al Dakka will graduate June 12 with a honours bachelor of science in biology (Photo by Jay Robb/McMaster University).

So 16-year-old Al Dakka spent her days volunteering at the refugee centre in Istanbul that had welcomed her family. It was an escape from the two-room flat that would be home to as many as 20 family members and strangers.

Al Dakka ran a program for a dozen refugee children while her older sister ran the program for women. Al Dakka also taught herself English and Turkish – she’d arrived in Istanbul with some broken English picked up from watching American rom-coms. She’d become her parents’ translator – a role she continues to this day. 

Al Dakka’s family was then relocated without any notice to an ultra conservative Muslim city near the border with Georgia. They were shunned by their neighbours. It didn’t feel safe to go outside. Temperatures dropped below minus 20 degrees Celsius and the landlord would only heat one room in their apartment. The only good thing Al Dakka remembers from this time was learning how to skate. She could stop and spin and was just beginning to skate backwards when her family returned to Istanbul. 

They were losing hope. Al Dakka’s father had hired an immigration lawyer to argue their case – the lawyer skipped the court date and disappeared with their money. Turkish authorities threatened to deport the family back to Iraq – that could have been a death sentence.  

But the family finally got good news. Al Dakka’s mother heard from a childhood friend who had moved to Canada decades ago and was living in Burlington. She was willing to privately sponsor the entire family and cover all of their living costs for the first year. Al Dakka’s family would eventually move into a two-bedroom apartment. She tells people her home has an elevator and indoor pool. “I don’t mention that I share it with about a thousand other people.” 

Al Dakka wasted no time returning to school. Online learning wasn’t an option – her family had never had the money for a computer or Wi-Fi. “I was technologically illiterate.”

She found an adult high school – Thomas Merton – in Oakville. She’d ride her bike to the Burlington GO Station, take the train into Oakville and then ride her bike to the school. In the winter, she’d walk the shortest possible routes to and from the stations.  

But to get into the high school, there was one more loop and hoop. Al Dakka first had to go to an assessment centre and write a test. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. If she failed the test, she’d have to wait a year to retake it. So failure wasn’t an option.

But writing tests was problematic – the language barrier flared up whenever she was under stress. “I’d be thinking in four languages at the same time – English, Assyrian, Arabic and Turkish. There’d be a war going on in my brain.” 

Al Dakka failed the test. When she broke the news at home, her sister told her to go back to the centre and ask to write it again. So Al Dakka got on her bike. She was distraught and distracted and wound up in a serious accident. She was badly hurt. She showed up at the assessment centre covered in blood, sweat and tears. “I was a total mess and not looking my best.” She got to take the test again and passed. 

Life had one more curveball for Al Dakka. The global pandemic hit and her remaining high school classes moved online. She managed to ace those classes – the A+ student was back – and Al Dakka was named her high school valedictorian.  

Everything went off the rails that Fall. Al Dakka had been accepted into McMaster’s Faculty of Science. Her sister got into the University of Toronto while her kid brother was a student at Toronto Metropolitan University. All three were now watching lectures, studying and taking online tests and exams at home in their two-bedroom apartment. 

Al Dakka was no longer an A+ student. She was struggling and needed help. She reached out to the Student Success Centre and shored up her academic skills. She was also told about accessibility services. This is where Al Dakka would have her first ever conversation about mental health – an issue that had always placed a distant third to putting food on the table and paying rent.

“That conversation was my best day at Mac,” says Al Dakka.

It proved to be life-changing. 

She’d go on to be diagnosed with attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder and chronic anxiety. She began talking with a psychiatrist. Her marks turned around – she hit a 4.0 grade point average in her fourth year while completing a research thesis project under the supervision of assistant professor Alex Little. 

Al Dakka wound up working in the Student Success Centre and serving as an Archway mentor. It was a way to reconnect with how she had made a difference years ago at the refugee centre. “Helping all those kids back in Turkey made me the person I am today.” Al Dakka went out of her way to help other displaced and dispossessed students who were going it alone and feeling defeated.  

Of everyone she met at McMaster, Al Dakka singles out associate professor Jonathon Stone.

“Doc Roc told me I belong at McMaster and made me feel like an equal to my classmates.” 

Stone in turn says Al Dakka is among the most impressive scientists and world citizens that he’s met in his 21 years teaching at McMaster – “a sharp, curiosity-driven mind with a passion for science, learning and life.” Stone predicts a brilliant future for Al Dakka. “Masarra’s destined to go far beyond what her mentors have accomplished.” 

Al Dakka’s been accepted into the Master of Biotechnology program at the University of Guelph – she’s most excited about the co-op work term with its real-world experience and a paycheque. She’s financing the program with a loan and hoping for a scholarship or bursary. She’ll continue living at home and commuting to Guelph. “My mom’s been telling everyone and anyone that I’m off to grad school. I like to keep it more low key.” 

Al Dakka’s still figuring out what comes after that – earning a PhD or going to dentistry school are definite options. Masarra underwent a root canal – without insurance – and was inspired by the dentist who’d performed the surgery. She’s scoping out dentistry schools while looking for a summer job. 

Whatever path she chooses, Al Dakka says she wants to continue helping other refugees and newcomers. “I can show others how to start over and build a better life. There is a way to break the cycle of poverty. It’s really hard with lots of sacrifices. It’s not rainbows and sunshine. But it can be done.”  

Click here for stories, videos and highlights from Spring 2024 convocation ceremonies and celebration events

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