Q&A With Mouhanad Al Rifay

April 26, 2021
Mouhanad Al Rifay

CMES AM candidate Mouhanad Al Rifay is a Syrian-American award-winning documentary filmmaker, humanitarian, and human rights activist. At CMES he is focused on journalism and nonfiction narrative writing and developing further expertise in Middle East–focused critical political and cultural commentary. After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2014 with a BA in Psychology, International Development, and Conflict Management, Al Rifay managed various USAID-funded programs at leading international development organizations in Washington, DC. He also co-founded the Syrian-American Network for Aid and Development, SANAD, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education of Syrian children. In 2018, Al Rifay released his first short documentary, “Tomorrow’s Children,” which exposes the suffering of six Syrian refugee children forced into child labor. “Tomorrow’s Children” won the Impact Award at the 2018 San Francisco International Festival of Short Films. Al Rifay also helped produce a weekly Arabic-speaking political program that interviewed US policymakers and published many articles in leading publications including the Huffington Post and Lebanese Daily Star. He has been involved in the Syrian democracy movement since before the 2011 uprising, disseminating information about human rights violations to Western media, and was featured in media outlets including The Washington Post, Lawfare, NPR, AJ+, Al Jazeera Arabic, and the Harvard Gazette. Al Rifay was a political asylee and received US citizenship in 2015.

Mouhanad Al Rifay

Why did you choose CMES?

In my search for the best graduate program that fit my needs and interests, I found that CMES affords me the opportunity to customize my graduate education experience to best fit my goals combining rigorous academic study, research, language, literature, and history with Middle East–focused policy, journalism, and cultural affairs. The program allowed me to focus on areas that best suit my professional interests and enrich my intellectual curiosity seamlessly. During my time here, CMES provided me with the space, support, and guidance to explore and bridge areas of study that, on the surface, may seem disconnected or unrelated, yet are deeply intertwined and fully present in Middle East culture, politics, and global influence. And what solidified my decision to choose CMES is my sister’s amazing experience here before me. My sister, Oula Alrifai, for sure, influenced my decision-making process, and for her guidance I am forever grateful.

What are your research interests?

I am interested in memory preservation and the documentation of history through the lives and struggles of ordinary people. Given my family’s background, I am particularly interested in the study of the urban educated elite and their dynamic relationship with the state in twentieth-century Syria and the Levant region. It is an extremely rich period of Levant history that was marked by the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the French and British colonial mandates, the start of the Arab–Israeli conflict, the rise of nationalism and pan-Arabism that gave way to the rise of modern young democratic states and later authoritarian-nationalist-military-socialist regimes and security states that unfortunately continue to violently suppress the democratic aspirations in the region, and foster an everlasting environment of conflict and upheaval. This amazing period is rarely discussed, understood, and researched. To understand the current complex dynamics in Syria and the region at large, it is essential to understand the grievances caused by competing external and internal forces and their lasting impact on the national consciousness of the Middle Eastern people. Thus, I believe closely studying the twentieth century is not only essential but should in fact be required for any student of the Middle East.

What have you liked best about living in Cambridge?

I loved living in Cambridge, albeit my time was cut short when the Covid-19 pandemic reached our shores. I lived in a graduate residence on campus and had the unique opportunity of experiencing campus life fully. One of my favorite activities was taking long night walks around Harvard Yard. For most of my walks I was alone, immersing myself in the quietness of the Harvard campus in the late hours of night interrupted only by groups of students engaging in snowball fights or laughter. At times I had a friend or two, who lived in the graduate residence as well, go on walks with me. And I truly enjoyed spending hours at the libraries, reading and writing. Oftentimes I was the last one sitting in the Loker Reading Room at Widener Library rushing to submit an assignment mere minutes before its midnight deadline with a library staff member shutting the lights off. On Friday nights, I loved going to Queen’s Head, the iconic Harvard student operated bar on campus hidden in Memorial Hall, or attending open-bar receptions at the Harvard Art Museum. And my favorite coffee spot was the free espresso bar on campus, which is apparently an open secret. I plan on keeping it a secret! Choosing to live on campus was intentional for me, I wanted to engage with the border community outside my program or School at Harvard. I am fortunate that my Harvard friends come from across the entire University, including the staff. During meals, I looked forward to speaking with the staff at my dining hall. Despite our short time physically together, living on campus afforded me the time and opportunities to build lifelong relationships and lasting memories that I’ll cherish forever.

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

In January 2020 I traveled to Tunisia with my colleagues from CMES and other students from across the University. It was an amazing experience. We had the opportunity to visit different parts of Tunisia, learn about the local history and culture, and experience firsthand the Tunisian people’s work towards a more democratic society and government. I particularly enjoyed learning about the colonial and postcolonial history of Tunisia and its lasting impact on the country and region, and I loved building memories with locals whom I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. In the summer of 2020, I had planned to live in Istanbul, Turkey, for a few months, attending an intensive and immersive Turkish language program at Boğaziçi University. However, I had to cancel my plans due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, I used my time wisely and instead took online nonfiction narrative writing courses at Stanford University and the University of Chicago, during which I was able to expand my writing skills, further develop my narrative style that is different from academic writing, and understand the elements that go into paragraph, chapter, and book structuring. I enjoy writing and editing, in both English and Arabic languages, and I hope to pursue it further in the near future.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your classroom work and your ability to conduct research?

Undoubtedly the Covid-19 pandemic drastically disrupted the world as we have come to know it. Yet it also unearthed the true possibilities of remote learning and working, something that my generation has come to value in the years prior to the pandemic. It goes without saying that the disruption was extremely painful and difficult at times, however the people at Harvard worked tirelessly to ensure our success, nonetheless. Personally, prior to the pandemic I enjoyed checking out books from the library (at times even picking up fifteen books or more on rainy nights), and I loved writing final papers alongside my colleagues on campus. Yet, as we all moved into quarantine many of the Harvard Library resources were made available digitally. The Library staff made sure to accommodate my requests with much kindness and big smiles. For sure, having access to millions of volumes and texts at any moment is priceless, but the ease in which we transitioned to virtual learning was astonishing. Going forward, I believe it is essential to invest more in digital resources, democratize digital book lending, and ensure the digitization of rare items and collections to ease access globally regardless of a pandemic or not.

Have there been any positive aspects at all of the remote learning model that Harvard has implemented?

Yes, definitely! Moving from traditional in-person learning to remote, overnight, as the Covid-19 pandemic reached our Harvard community in March 2020, was not easy. Nonetheless, despite glitches along the way, it was painless from a student’s point of view. Within weeks the University made Zoom accounts available for all students, provided training, and listened to concerns and suggestions. In my second remote semester, fall 2020, a strong foundation had already been established and courses accommodated modern-day virtual learning. For example, “Confronting Climate Change,” one of the foundational courses I took with Daniel Schrag [Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering], provided modules in video format followed by short quizzes, completely based on Canvas. And so, instead of relying on heavy readings per usual, the course team created content that met our new virtual learning environment. And so, students benefited from high quality audio-visual education in addition to our regular weekly Zoom class meetings. Another exciting opportunity was the large number of guest speakers who attended our different courses, who in normal circumstances might have declined such invitations due to travel or busy schedules. For example, I had the good fortune of meeting journalists Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times and Katie Couric; both joined one of my classes at the Harvard Kennedy School taught by Nancy Gibbs [Lombard Director of the Shorenstein Center and Visiting ­Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy, HKS].

What extracurriculars activities have you pursued at Harvard?

Coming to Harvard, in spite of my prior full-time work experience, I knew that engaging with the professional environment at Harvard is essential to my long-term career goals beyond the classroom. And so, in my first semester I joined the Middle East Initiative (MEI) at the Harvard Kennedy School as an intern, and continued my internship throughout my entire time at Harvard. At MEI I have been able to connect with the professional side of the institution and experience firsthand the behind-the-scenes of the academic-professional environment that students don’t usually engage directly with in the classroom. Also, in an effort to sharpen my editorial and journalistic skills, I joined the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy at the Kennedy School as Senior Staff Writer, where I regularly collaborated with fellow students on writing, editing, and publishing Middle East–focused political and cultural commentary and helped design the Spring 2021 print edition of the journal. In 2020 I joined the Harvard Votes Challenge, a nonpartisan initiative that encourages students and others in the Harvard community, through one-on-one communication, to take a more active role in our democracy and help increase student voter turnout. And lastly, I was honored to be elected by my colleagues at CMES to represent them at the Graduate Student Council as their Program Representative—a true honor of a lifetime. Of course, the opportunities are truly endless. When I lived on campus, I had the pleasure to attend many talks, screenings, exhibits, concerts, and happy hours where I met many of the absolutely wonderful people from all walks of life who make Harvard the rich and undeniably unique place that it is.

What are your plans after finishing your degree?

I have worked full-time prior to coming to Harvard for years and had run my own small nonprofit organization since 2011. Naturally I plan to seek full-time employment after graduating. However, given the state of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis we’re in, I am not sure how easily I will be able to find a job that I enjoy and feel fulfilled by. At the same time, I believe that this pandemic has forced my generation to rethink everything about the nature of work, career goals, and economic and emotional fulfillment. And so, I think it is essential to work in areas that we personally find not only economically satisfying, but also emotionally, intellectually, and politically fulfilling. For me, given my experience in the corporate and nonprofit sectors in addition to my independent work as a filmmaker and writer, going forward I will seek opportunities that don’t only meet my economic expectations but also fulfill my physical and emotional growth and development. And so, I will most likely seek to build a career that combines my Middle East–focused regional and global expertise with my passion for audiovisual media, human communication, nonfiction writing, and storytelling, and my urgent sense of duty towards my two countries, the United States and Syria, and the globe.

What advice would you offer a prospective CMES AM student?

I encourage prospective students to visit CMES, if possible, and engage with the faculty and staff at the Center prior to applying. The CMES family is kind, unique, and welcoming. Do not be intimidated by the Harvard brand; the beautiful people that make CMES are here to support you. And they are extremely excited to meet you and learn from you. I had the good fortune to meet with the Director and some faculty and staff at CMES prior to the submission of my application, and in spite of their stature and influence they all welcomed and encouraged me every step of the way, starting with the application process and until my last day here at CMES, and beyond. CMES is my second family.