Queens College Graduate Nashwa El-Sayed Rebuilds Her Life After Being Abducted to Egypt as a Baby
Updated: Aug 5, 2020
–Made Dramatic Escape to the U.S. at 17; Will Return to the Mid-East This Month for First Time With Student Group to Study the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict–
FLUSHING, NY, May 23, 2013 — This is a story worthy of Argo film treatment: For college seniors nationwide, turning in term papers and waitressing to pay the bills are routine experiences. For Nashwa El-Sayed, they’re nothing short of a miracle.
At the end of this month, El-Sayed will earn a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Queens College—one of the many steps she is taking towards reclaiming the future stolen from her as a toddler. A 22-year-old native New Yorker born to a Puerto Rican mother and an Egyptian father, El-Sayed was abducted by her father when she was almost three years old following her parents’ divorce. She was taken to Egypt, where she endured years of neglect and physical and verbal abuse. A sudden, tension-filled escape back to the United States at age 17—spurred by the news that she was to be engaged to a man she had never met—came off in Hollywood-like fashion with the help of the State Department.
After being told that her mother was dead, El-Sayed learned, at age nine, that she was alive. Grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with her mother, El-Sayed saw her periodically throughout the next eight years that she would spend in Egypt. “I was obsessed with the idea that she is American and I am too,” El-Sayed recalls. So determined was she to reclaim her life in America, that she taught herself English while in Egypt using the subtitles on shows like “Friends” and “King of Queens.”
El-Sayed’s chance to escape came during a closely guarded visit to Cairo. “A State Department person asked me, ‘Can you leave today?’” She hesitated, afraid of the dangers. Then an FBI agent called, saying, “It’s now or never.” So at 5 am El-Sayed fled to a waiting van, and soon was boarding an international flight with “nothing”—just the clothes she had on, her hijab, and $100 from her mom.
Shortly after her return to the states, El-Sayed showed up at Queens College’s Admissions Office determined to get a college education. After explaining her situation, she was admitted directly. To pay her tuition, she worked in a mall and for two years in the college’s Academic Advising office. El-Sayed’s relationship with her mother deteriorated within a couple of years, but resilient as ever, she left home with $600 in her pocket; found a shared apartment on Craig’s List, and picked up a waitressing job. Her fencing coach arranged a full scholarship to keep her on the team.
“I owe all my progress to Queens College,” says El-Sayed. “This was the perfect place for me. It was exactly what I needed: people who were really concerned for who I am.” Early this month, the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding honored her with its Uncommon Courage Award, given each year to a student, a graduate and someone in the broader community “who has acted with courage above and beyond the ordinary.”
Her future plans are to pursue a career in Middle Eastern diplomacy, and long-term, to establish a foundation to provide help and counseling tailored to the unique experience of families struggling with international abduction. Her own life has taught her that this help is so necessary. “The freedom that I have as a woman here is like no [Arab] female in the Middle East can have,” El-Sayed says. “It is the freedom to have a simple choice in life.”
“Nashwa El-Sayed is an extraordinary young woman,” says James Muyskens, president of Queens College. “In her 22 years, she has shown the strength, determination, and courage that many individuals never exhibit in their lifetimes. I have every confidence that Nashwa will use these qualities for the common good in the years ahead.”
Although El-Sayed will miss the college’s May 30 commencement ceremony, she will be busy pursuing the first of her life goals: From May 28 to June 13, she travels to the Middle East through the prestigious Ibrahim Foundation Leadership and Dialogue Project. As one of six students under the guidance of Mark Rosenblum, director of QC’s Center for Jewish Studies, she will examine the political, cultural, and economic structures of Dubai, Israel, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Representing Christianity, Islam and Judaism—two students from each faith—they will also work to foster a common dialogue regarding the Middle East conflict.
As it celebrates its 75th year, QueensCollege enjoys a national reputation for its liberal arts and sciences and pre-professional programs. With its graduate and undergraduate degrees, honors programs, and research and internship opportunities, the college helps its over 20,000 students realize their potential in countless ways, assisted by an accessible, award-winning faculty. Located on a beautiful, 77-acre campus in Flushing, the college is cited each year in the Princeton Review as one of the nation’s 100 “Best Value” colleges, thanks to its outstanding academics, generous financial aid packages, and relatively low costs. More info on Queens College at www.qc.cuny.edu.
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