Q&A with Oula Alrifai

March 11, 2019
Oula Alrifai in Tunisia
Oula Alrifai in Dougga, Tunisia, January 2019

Oula Alrifai is a second-year student in the AM in Middle Eastern Studies program.

How did you become interested in Middle Eastern studies?

Not only did I come from the Middle East, I also studied government and politics of the Middle East during my undergraduate years at the University of Maryland, College Park. The first eighteen years of my life I grew up in Damascus, Syria, under the Ba’ath Party system. In 2005 my family and I had to flee our country to the United States for opposing Syria’s brutal dictatorship regime. That experience triggered in me many questions about the world, the Middle East, and the country I come from, and drove me to devote my life to making change and educating others on complex Middle East issues. Furthermore, my experiences ignited a passion for human rights, democracy, and political freedoms. As I see Syria falling apart due to dictatorship, sectarianism, and terrorism, this passion grows.

Why did you choose CMES?

I have always dreamed to be a student at Harvard University since I was a little girl attending elementary school back home in Damascus. My grandmother, one of the first and top female doctors in Syria, used to tell me that with hard work dreams come true. She was right. When I came across CMES in 2016, I immediately felt that this program was a natural fit for my intellectual and research interests as well as career objectives. CMES provides me with the freedom to focus on what really matters, it broadens my academic knowledge, and challenges me to perfect a third language: Persian. Most importantly, CMES makes me feel welcomed and at home. The faculty and staff are exceptionally caring and motivating, and my peers come from a variety of backgrounds and countries, which makes our interactions and academic experience very rich and unique.

Oula Alrifai in Tunisia
Oula Alrifai in Dougga, Tunisia, January 2019


What are your research interests?

I am currently conducting background research and writing a thesis exploring the development of the Iranian-Syrian relationship in the 1970s and 1980s through the lens of religio-political dynamics. I hope to answer the question of why Hafez al-Assad, a leader in the Alawite minority, allowed Iran to promote Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary religious doctrine in Syria, and how Iran undertook it. I believe closely examining this subject will not only fill a lacuna in the academic literature, but also advance empirical knowledge relevant to contemporary Arab politics.

What do you like best about studying at Harvard?

I am truly amazed by the diversity of students and interests at Harvard University. Being surrounded and working everyday with highly intelligent faculty and students makes my experience here very rich and unforgettable.

What travel/research opportunities have you pursued during your time at Harvard?

During my time at Harvard, I have traveled to three countries for different research and learning purposes. In April 2018, with Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, I was selected to travel on the very first Harvard University Student Delegation to Saudi Arabia to meet with officials, academics, and professionals and to discuss issues related to terrorism, Gulf security, and Vision 2030. I also spent the summer of 2018 in Yerevan, Armenia, where I attended an intensive Persian language and history class for six weeks as a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow. Most recently, in January 2019, I participated in a winter-term study excursion to Tunisia with CMES. The program focused on history, culture, and literature of Tunisia.

What kinds of extracurriculars have you pursued?

Since my first semester at Harvard, I have been a student intern at the Middle East Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, where I assist in media- and communications-related projects. I have also published articles on the Middle East, one at the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Furthermore, I am currently planning for a screening on campus of my newly released and award-winning documentary, Tomorrow’s Children, which explores Syrian refugees forced into child labor in Turkey.

What are your plans after finishing your degree?

I aspire to go to Harvard Law School in a couple of years. But I am currently exploring different career opportunities such as working in diplomacy or at a non-governmental organization on issues related to the Middle East and North Africa.

What advice would you offer a prospective/incoming student?

I advise students to take their time to know what career path would be most meaningful to them and then apply to CMES to study what would be beneficial for their professional interests and intellectual goals. CMES offers rich AM and PhD programs; therefore, students should use wisely their time here and make the most out of their academic journey at Harvard.