From UNRWA Schools in Syria to Top Research Institutes: Nowras’ Journey to His Contribution in the Search for a COVID-19 Vaccine

22 December 2020
This photograph shows the Grade 9 Graduating Class of 2007 from the UNRWA Haifa Boys’ School in Damascus, Syria, 2007. © Photo courtesy of Nowras Rahhal

At first glance, there is nothing unusual about this class picture of a group of eager and happy young boys who have just graduated from Grade 9 at the UNRWA-administered Haifa Boys’ School in Damascus, Syria, in 2007. Hidden in the third row from the top (3rd from the right), however, is Nowras Rahhal, a young boy with unique talent and diligence who would end up as a scientist at one of the renowned Max Planck Institutes in Germany, leaving behind his family in war-torn Syria to help a team of researchers develop a vaccine candidate against COVID-19.  For this, he credits his family that values education and the education he received at the UNRWA school.

Nowras, 27 years old, started life as a Palestine refugee in Syria whose family fled Haifa in historic Palestine in the wake of the 1948 War. His grandfather lived on the famed Salah Al-Din Street in Haifa and many members of his family remain there today. One of four children, Nowras was born in Darayya in Syria in 1993. The family moved to Damascus in 2005 where Nowras was enrolled in the UNRWA Haifa Boys’ School - one of over 100 schools operated by UNRWA for more than 50,000 Palestine refugee students in Syria. It is a place he recalls fondly.

“I remember my school and all my teachers. I respected them because they were more than teachers for us, and the school was not just a school, it was like home for us. Our teachers, who were also Palestine refugees and education professionals, were like family. The school taught us all the usual subjects, but also taught us about life and values and priorities. UNRWA kept and saved the traditions and culture of Palestine.”

For Nowras, the UNRWA school in Damascus is where his actual education began.  “I can’t explain how important UNRWA was for us.  Grade 7-9 was a very important phase for me. It was a critical age, the age where you start to observe, understand and analyze things and when you start to ‘dream’. UNRWA always instilled in us that education is our best tool in life and that we have to dream big. UNRWA had a positive impact on me and my personality.”

While Nowras excelled in all subjects, science and math were his passion. “I always scored high grades, but I loved math and science the most!” His scholastic achievements continued on from that young age. He went on to graduate from high school with honours in 2010 and was able to join a bachelor degree in pharmaceutical sciences at Damascus University.

But his dreams were even bigger than this. Because of the war raging in Syria, Nowras and his brothers sought opportunities outside Syria. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he applied to more than twenty programmes abroad and was eventually admitted to Kassel University in Germany to study nano technology. As a stateless Palestine refugee from Syria, Nowras had to wait nine months to obtain a visa after a long process.  His perseverance paid off and he was enrolled as an international student in late 2018. As usual, Nowras excelled and graduated in November 2020 with a thesis in the field of Nanomedicne. For his excellent performance and social work at the city, he was nominated for the best international student award.

Nowras Rahhal at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Germany © 2020 Photo courtesy of Nowras Rahhal
Nowras Rahhal at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Germany © 2020 Photo courtesy of Nowras Rahhal

During his studies, Nowras joined the Max Planch Research Institutes for further research in the field of nano technology. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he worked on cancer research and, having learned German, participated in a bilingual storytelling project for refugee children in Germany. He was then hand-picked to join a team of researchers at the Institute who are working to develop a topical Covid-19 vaccine.  This new delivery method – applied to the skin instead of being injected into the muscle- would make inoculation faster, cheaper and easier, given that current vaccines require refrigeration and multiple doses.

His latest move in pursuit of his education has taken him to the University of Vienna where he will study to obtain a PhD in vaccine technology while continuing to work on the COVID-19 vaccine project, which has passed initial tests. 

Nowras hopes that his story will encourage other young Palestine refugees to dream big and study hard. “There are many reasons why I’m sharing my UNRWA story. First, it is to raise awareness about the plight of Palestine refugees in general. Second, I want to encourage all Palestine refugee students to study hard and dream even harder! Finally, I want to encourage all donors to help Palestine refugees get more opportunities and for universities to support refugee students and provide them with more scholarship and internship opportunities.  Every student has a right to study and live in peace. I’m where I am today because of UNRWA and all the other opportunities I was given. I owe my success to my school, my teachers and my family.”

Recognizing that education is fundamental to helping each child achieve their full potential and a human right, UNRWA has worked for over 70 years to ensure that Palestine refugee children have access to quality education. Through its education system, UNRWA aims to ensure that Palestine refugee students develop their full potential and become confident, innovative, questioning, thoughtful, and open-minded, to uphold human values and tolerance, proud of their Palestinian identity and contributing positively to the development of society and the global community.  Today, UNRWA operates 706 elementary and preparatory schools in its five fields of operation, including eight secondary schools in Lebanon, providing free basic education for some 534,000 Palestine refugee children.

Reflecting on his path, Nowras adds, “I hope that the world will continue to give refugees and stateless people a glimmer of hope. This could be achieved by giving people equal opportunity to contribute to and allow them to be part of every community. I consider myself very lucky that I had a chance, but many other kids do not. In my case, the UNRWA school in Damascus was a major part of that and it has helped me to even the odds.”