Syrian woman defies tradition to educate herself, help others

Inas Hamaz, South Swaida, Syria Inas Hamaz, South Swaida, Syria
By Muriel Hoffacker
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2010

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Ever since she was a young girl, Inas Hamaz had a feeling she would live in America. Growing up in South Swaida, Syria, she witnessed the repression of women. She decided that someday she would challenge that tradition.

Now 24 and a resident of Saugus, Hamaz will be the first person in her immediate or extended family to graduate from an American college. On May 22, she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and decision science among the top five students of her class at the Bertolon School of Business at Salem State College.

With a 3.8 GPA, Hamaz has been on the dean’s list for all eight semesters as well as a member of Phi Kappa Phi, a scholastic honors society, and Delta Mu Delta, a scholastic honors society for business. She will also be recognized as the recipient of the OSRAM Sylvania scholarship and will receive the Dean’s Book award.

“I am very happy I’m graduating,’’ said Hamaz. “But that’s not it. It’s just the first step.’’

Hamaz moved to the United States, settling in Revere, in March 2006 with her husband, Nazih Hamaz, 47, who had lived in the United States for 23 years. Though she had a record of good grades, success in America didn’t come right away.

First, Hamaz needed to learn English. She enrolled in an intensive Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) program, where she studied six hours every day and passed her English requirements after two months. In September 2006, she enrolled at Salem State as a freshman and signed up for the Language Intensive Program (LIP), where she now volunteers as an English tutor.

In May 2008, Hamaz gave birth to a daughter, Maialen. Her mother visited from Syria for three months in the summer to care for the newborn so Hamaz could take more courses.

“She wanted me to study,’’ said Hamaz. “She was a good student but then she got married and never continued her education.’’

That is one reason for Hamaz’s concern for the status of women in Syria.

“It’s not expected from a woman to make change,’’ she said. “I always didn’t like that and I wanted to break through that and not be limited by any traditions.’’

She won’t be. In fact, Hamaz plans on getting her diploma with her daughter in her arms. “I feel really lucky,’’ she said, even when she struggled being a mother and full-time student alone for a semester while Nazih was back in Syria for business.

She says that in stressful times, she reminds herself of the social traditions in Syria, and that motivates her to work hard, not to be controlled by those traditions. “I want to make a change,’’ she said.

“Inas has enlarged my respect toward the potential of students when they put their minds to work and discipline sufficiently,’’ said Charles Navle, 83, a retired priest and sociology professor at Salem State who has served as Hamaz’s “life mentor.’’

He and Hamaz are in frequent contact because of her intellectual curiosity, and she has been an inspiration. “She’s making me a better person,’’ he said.

Her immediate family will attend her graduation ceremony. They know how hard she has worked, and how much she’s faced with the economy, studies, raising a family, and most of all the cultural challenges.

After graduation, Hamaz hopes to attend graduate school to study international affairs or international economics. Before that, though, she’s happy to take a year off and work part time.

“If I spent my whole life studying; I wouldn’t mind,’’ she said. “There are a lot of things I want to know.’’

Eventually, Hamaz plans on using her business degree to start her own jewelry line. She’s just waiting for resources to support her many ideas and hopes to expand her work internationally.

“I want to make the best of what I have,’’ she said. “I will start an organization that helps abused women internationally, maybe in coordination with the UN. . . . These are my bigger dreams.’’

Muriel Hoffacker is a writer with the Gordon College News Service.

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