Majd’s journey from Gaza to glory

Majd Almasri came to Bremerton High School from the Gaza Strip last summer for a chance at a better education.

Now, she wants to stay in this country and go to Princeton. And her host family is trying to bring her family to the U.S., too, because their lives are in danger.

Almasri, a 16-year-old Palestinian, said: “I lived in the middle area of the Gaza Strip so right now my family is not safe. They told them to evacuate south but they are bombing south, and the north is already destroyed.”

Almasri’s host family, the Rodes, have raised $50,000 in a handful of fundraisers in Bremerton to help with the effort. “We started a GoFundMe because you need permits to cross the Rafa border into Egypt,” mom Tana Rode said. “It is $14,000 a person just to cross into Egypt.”

The Rode family has been battling barriers for months, and has reached its largest obstacle yet. “The money got through our country because it had to be sanctioned in New York, and now we are waiting if it lands in her dad’s bank account,” Rode said. “It has to go through the Bank of Palestine and disperse it through the local branches. It has been about a month of trying to get it through.”

Almasri added: “The government is not taking the money for people to get out of Gaza. They are taking the administrators at the border who are exploiting the Gaza people. They do not want any people going from Gaza to Egypt, even for safety, because they are already facing a crisis.”

Despite battling multiple obstacles, Almasri continues to succeed. “She has been doing amazing at school and still super dynamic despite all the drama, angst and the war,” said Amber Plummer, Bremerton’s athletic director. “I feel like she is a survivor.”

Family or career?

Almasri’s decision to leave her family weighed on her mind for years. She knew there could be sacrifices. “Since third grade, I have been living independently,” she said. “I was fixed on needing this to achieve that for my career. I told them about the exchange program, and they want the best for me.”

Almasri wanted to pursue a higher education since Gaza does not have many universities left standing or resources for her to continue her education. So she applied for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Program.

“Since I was in eighth grade, I wanted to apply,” Almasri said. “It was the land of dreams, and I wanted to come to the U.S. and have a better education and opportunities. I have met a lot of people in Gaza that have major dreams and are super capable of doing that but they have no resources to fulfill what they want to accomplish.”

Since moving here, Almasri hopes not to leave anytime soon. She is looking to remain in the United States longer, even if it comes with more sacrifices. “It was for ten months in the U.S., and I will see my family again,” Almasri said. “Now, it’s heartbreaking to say but I may not see my family ever again. It’s a super hard decision to either improve my life or go see my family and not have a life at all.”

Almasri believes the U.S. is not looking out for her best interest and safety if they force her to return to the Gaza Strip. “Last year, Ukrainian students were in the same situation,” Almasri said. “They offered them protection. The U.S. Department of State sent my exchange program that said you are going back to Gaza on this date and here is your flight. They didn’t say we hope you are doing well or anything about Gaza even though they know the situation.”

Almasri attempts to check in with her family every day. “In the last two weeks, there was a total blackout with no cellular connection and no internet,” Almasri said. “I was freaking out because I could not contact them. It was a matter of seconds for Israeli soldiers to bomb them.”

Recently, Almasri’s family has electricity again, and she sends a text every day. “It doesn’t have to be a big text but maybe ‘Good Morning’ or ‘How are you?’” Almasri said. “It’s the smallest thing to know they are still alive and still OK.”

All Palestinians lack food, water, shelter and medication. In addition, they are offered electricity for only four hours a day. The Gaza Strip has a total area of about 141 square miles, nearly equivalent to one-third of Kitsap County’s land mass.

This is the first time Almasri has enjoyed leaving the Gaza Strip. “Even before October 7th, we were never able to go on cruises or to the water,” Almasri said. “A few years ago, my dad had to do surgery in Egypt so I got to leave for the first time for the surgery and came right back.”

Palestinians are not allowed to cross the Israeli border. However, she had a U.S. permit to get out of the strip to go to the United States. “This was my only way coming out of Gaza,” Almasri said. “Our only way to leave is applying for scholarships so it is what I have been doing my whole life.”

Application process

Her application process contained four steps, and the committee only accepted 10 out of 700 people.

First, Almasri had to take a 13-page English test within 13 minutes meant for international college students. Next, she had 30 minutes to write four essay prompts without preparation.

After the first two rounds, the program narrowed the list to 19 students. They filled out a 30-page application asking about their extracurricular activities and medical forms.

Then, Almasri reached the toughest stage. “We had to be interviewed with the panel of the U.S. Department of State Representatives, one person from the American Congress and one person from the American Council Program,” Almasri said. “They gave us thirty seconds to present about my country.”

After four months, the final step was a personal interview. “It felt like my blood was boiling all the time,” Almasri said. “I was waking up and going to sleep waiting for the email I would receive because this is an opportunity you will never get again.”

Almasri landed in Washington, DC with the nine other international students to prepare themselves for America. “I was shocked because people don’t use bidets and everything was different from food, people and streets,” Almasri said. “We didn’t even have streets, addresses, postal codes or mail.”

In Bremerton

Almasri then traveled across the country to Bremerton. She settled down with her first host family and got situated at Bremerton High School.

Plummer tried incorporating Almasri into sports so she could make friends.

“Majd didn’t do sports in the fall,” Plummer said. “In the past, I tried to get international students into sports ahead of time but I didn’t know of Majd until just before bowling. We were leaving in the van, and she wasn’t cleared in the system. I’m tenacious so we were not going until she was good to go.”

Besides bowling, Almasri began to make friends in class. “We first started talking because she was giving her cultural presentation, and she asked us to write our names in Arabic, and I was the only one who nailed it,” Helene Rode said. “We have been besties since then.”

Helene told her mother, Tana Rode, about her new friend. Since Almasri was looking for a new host family, Rode decided to reach out. “I saw what was going on and was talking to Helene about it,” Rode said. “She said we have an exchange student from Gaza, and she is in my physics class. It may be creepy that some middle-aged white woman was messaging (Majd) on Instagram but I sent her a message of who I am and if she ever wants to talk or need support, I am here.”

Rode and Almasri went for lunch, hung out at a park and ate ice cream while shopping. The two clicked and agreed it was a great decision for both.

Since moving in with the Rode family, Almasri has learned a sense of freedom. “They have shown me the beauty of freedom and good American standards,” Almasri said. “It has been a lot of peace and love since I have moved into their home. I learned how to express my opinions without being judged all the time.”

Plummer is glad they connected. “When international students come in, especially girls, I talk to them in terms of athletics and steer them to Helene,” Plummer said. “I didn’t know Tana was internationally aware but I knew Helene is a great representation of a Bremerton High student and person.”

Almasri and Rode have built a strong connection. “It has been Helene and I for years,” Rode said. Majd “has taught me a lot, including how to make pastries. I can’t believe I am in contact with people halfway across the world who have to dodge snipers to collect wood to cook. It’s not right.”

She teaches us

Almasri takes pride in creating a curriculum about negotiation. “It was only supposed to be for young girls and teenagers because my town is patriarchal,” she said. “Whenever I try to do anything out of the norms, it’s weird and too liberal, and they don’t like that.”

Almasri runs the curriculum with students in the Access Mirco scholarship program. She has helped teach young girls the English language and American culture. “It was a part of my project for a program called the Rise program,” she said. “They only choose people who are highly intellectual and active citizens in their communities and want to change their societies for the better. I applied and out of 100,000 people in the world. I was one of 500 people chosen.”

Almasri’s other achievement is teaching her American peers a new culture and gratitude.

“All I knew is what our national media told us,” Rode said. “The people I talked to in Gaza are beautiful, kind human beings, and I’m grateful for her.”

Plummer said, “Majd has exposed many holes in our organization by how things are done, how things work and even in our athletics program.”

As Almasri’s time comes to an end at Bremerton, she hopes her education can continue at the highest level. She is looking to attend Princeton and major in astrophysics. “She is going to change the world but right now she has just changed Bremerton High School,” Plummer said.

Majd Almasri has dreamed about pursuing her educational career in the U.S.

Majd Almasri has dreamed about pursuing her educational career in the U.S.