From War-Torn Syria to William Paterson University, Mother and Daughter Start Over and Graduate Together as Members of the Class of 2023

Mother and daughter, Stani Hajbi and Racha Ahmad

Seeking asylum from war, Racha Ahmad immigrated with her mother and three siblings from Damascus, Syria to Wayne, New Jersey—moving into a rental property near the campus of William Paterson University—in 2014, shortly after she graduated high school.

“I used to see and hear about this university called William Paterson University, and I thought, ‘Maybe one day, I’ll be inside these big buildings, studying,’” recalls Ahmad. 

This month, Ahmad will graduate from William Paterson University cum laude with her bachelor’s degree, having majored both in political science and English literature. She has been selected to serve as the undergraduate student speaker at the University’s Commencement ceremony on May 31 at the Prudential Center.

Her mother, Stani Hajbi, will be watching proudly as Ahmad delivers her remarks from the podium…and she will be wearing a cap and gown of her own. Hajbi is graduating with her daughter as part of William Paterson’s Class of 2023, earning her bachelor’s degree, also cum laude, in accounting.

“I went to William Paterson with Racha for the first time, for her admission paperwork,” Hajbi recalls. “As soon as I entered, I felt something—I really felt like I belonged in that building. I couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about it, and thinking that to increase our income, I needed the degree.”

Hajbi, like her daughter, took classes to improve her English when the family arrived in Wayne. They chose the town because most of Hajbi’s extended family had been living there for years; they had immigrated well before her, in the late 1970s, and Hajbi had visited them twice in the 1990s.

Being close to family was important, as the mother of four children—Ahmad being the eldest—had come to the United States without her husband, Bassam. He urged his wife and children to seek safety in America, but he stayed behind in Syria to care for his terminally ill father, who was expected to live only one year more. 

His father lived four years more, until 2018. That same year, Hajbi filed the requisite U.S. Immigration paperwork to get her husband to Wayne. This month, five years later and exactly two weeks before mother and daughter walk across the stage to receive their University diplomas, Bassam will finally arrive. 

Hajbi has not seen her husband in-person, and Ahmad and her younger brothers have not seen their father in-person, in nine years.

“To travel, with my kids, it’s not easy and it’s expensive,” Hajbi explains. They couldn’t go back to Syria and Bassam did not have a visa to come here.

“Believe it or not, he’s happier than us that his wife and his daughter are graduating at the same time. If you could see his face, see how happy he is,” Hajbi says, with a big smile. “All of us will be at Commencement,” she adds, of her family. 

The road wasn’t easy. 

Ahmad delayed her college career in the U.S. as she waited for her application for permanent residency to be processed, because it would make her eligible for financial aid. After more than a year, the family learned their residency paperwork would be delayed, so Ahmad eventually enrolled in Passaic County Community College full-time and paid her tuition in full. She graduated in 2019 with an associate’s degree in liberal arts/teacher education. In January of 2020, with residency cards in hand, she and her mother enrolled at William Paterson.

Hajbi, too, had already earned an associate’s—hers, in accounting, back in Syria.

Ahmad worked full-time at the QuickChek store next door to the WP campus for the entirety of her college career not only to pay tuition, but also to help support her family. Her mother, who worked two jobs—one at a different QuickChek store and one as a substitute teacher in Paterson Public Schools—made just enough money to cover the rent. Ahmad’s paycheck covered the rest of the family’s expenses, and most importantly, ensured her younger siblings were fed and clothed.

“We came here and we knew that work and school would give us better chances,” Ahmad says.

Both mother and daughter completed their bachelor’s degree requirements in January 2023.

“Starting from Admissions to Financial Aid to the professors, every person we met at William Paterson was really helpful,” Ahmad says, leading to both mother and daughter excitedly listing all their favorite courses and beloved professors. From Shakespearean Literature to Microeconomics to “literally the entire political science major,” the two are certainly not short on Pioneer Pride. “The professors are amazing,” Ahmad adds, “and I love the campus.”

“When I entered the class for Statistics II, the students thought I was the professor,” Hajbi, age 52, says laughing, as the two recount highlights of their WP careers. “I said, ‘No, I’m a student like you!’”

Ahmad, age 26, won’t be away from William Paterson University long. She plans to enroll soon in the University’s graduate program in public policy, with her dream job in mind. She aspires to work in foreign affairs for the U.S. Department of State.

Hajbi, through a customer she met at her QuickChek job, had a full-time career in accounting waiting for her. She started in January, as soon as she completed her degree requirements, “and now we have a better income and we are in a better situation,” she says, proudly.

“Everyone who lives outside of America, their dream is to come here, and now I know what that dream means,” Hajbi says. “I started a new life. We did it: We’re living the reality. Nothing is impossible here.”