Supporting Scholars

Al Rashid Education Foundation scholarships help Edmonton’s young Muslims reach new heights

“Wherever there are doors, I knock on them,” said Yasmeen El Hajj Abdallah.

It is a philosophy the 23-year-old lives every day. Between school, employment and volunteer work, she is a whirlwind of activity. Abdallah is a lifelong Edmontonian and a student at the University of Alberta, set to graduate from the Doctor of Pharmacy program in 2022. As if the demands of academia and a job are not enough, she also gives back to the community through an inspiring array of volunteer work.

In one instance, her efforts helped save the 2018 Bissell Centre New Year’s Day dinner.

“That was actually my mom who brought it up,” Abdallah said. “She said, ‘Look at this, they don’t have enough funds to pay for their dinners. We have to do something about it.’”

Not one to back down from a challenge, Abdallah coordinated efforts that helped the Al Rashid Mosque raise $10,000 toward the dinner. The event was a success, providing 1,200 meals to Edmonton’s less fortunate.

While Abdallah’s activism ranges from political and research organizations to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, one organization she is most closely involved with is the Al Rashid Education Foundation (AREF).

AREF is devoted to post-secondary education within Muslim communities and promoting community leadership by young people. The Foundation provides a number of scholarships to students who exemplify a combination of academic excellence and community service. The scholarships are for undergraduate and postgraduate students, and range in value from $1,000 to $5,000.

Since 2014, AREF has awarded more than $200,000 to over 100 students.

Aumer Assaf, vice president of AREF, says that the Foundation’s aim is “to develop bold and  imaginative thinkers that will lead our nation into the future.”

“AREF encourages diversity in educational pathways and guides young scholars to engage in disciplines that are under-pursued in the community, all in an attempt to ensure expertise to address the rapidly transforming needs of our society,”Assaf said.

Abdallah has had a close connection to AREF for several years, both as a scholarship recipient and more recently as a board member in a communications role. (She does not have input into selection of scholarship recipients.) That relationship has been an important part of her success.

Abdallah, whose first AREF scholarship came in 2014, said it covered the cost of her textbooks and supplies. More importantly, it boosted her confidence.

“More so than the money, it was exciting to feel you had a community supporting you. So, with the entrance scholarship, it was like AREF saying, ‘We’ll help you with this first step,’ so that was really exciting to have.”

The AREF slogan, “Success is Sweet,” speaks to the value it places on academic achievement. Successful high-school scholarship applicants are required to have at least an 80 per cent average and be enrolled in upcoming post-secondary studies. Post-secondary students are required to have a grade-point average of at least 3.5.

Kathy Hawkesworth, director of donor services for Edmonton Community Foundation, has seen the results of AREF’s vision, as the two organizations have worked together.

“AREF provides scholarships to wonderful young people,” Hawkesworth said. “They have, with the consent of one of their donor families, created an endowment fund here as the first of what we hope will
become a family of funds, each named by the donor family. We have had the pleasure of attending their awards ceremony the last two years and can attest to the brilliance and skill of the young people who receive awards. As an older adult, I find it a very humbling and positive experience. Our world will be in good hands with these young people at the helm.”

For Abdallah, the hard work to meet the requirements, both for academic achievement and community service, is second nature. It is a trait she says she inherited from her parents.

“We don’t know how to just sit down and relax,” she said. “It’s a common theme in my family to just go, go, go.”

That energy has paid dividends. In 2019, Abdallah received AREF’s Iyshie Mariam Kazeil Memorial Scholarship, a $5,000 award to the top female applicant in all categories.

She said the scholarship is meaningful to her as an opportunity to inspire others.

“It’s creating a legacy,” she said. “By creating that legacy and a community really acknowledging your legacy, you set an example for other people. You can use my legacy as a step to go above and reach for the highest you can reach.”

The point of AREF scholarships, Abdallah believes, is to encourage students to look outward and engage with their communities.

“What good can you do if you live in your own bubble?” she said.

When asked to summarize her feelings about AREF scholarships, she credits the support with helping her reach her potential.

She adds that her long-term goal is to give back to AREF by establishing her own scholarship for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“There is that saying that ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants.’ It’s like that with AREF — they let you stand on their shoulders.”