Speaking words of justice

Through her undergraduate research, UW Bothell senior Malak Shalabi is exploring her identity, her past — and the grim political reality that still affects her family.

When Malak Shalabi visits her extended family in Jordan, they sometimes drive through the countryside and see Syria in the distance. “But there’s no going back,” she says. “Whenever I spend time with my family and they share stories of life back home, I hold on to every word, because this is one of the closest connections I’ll ever have to our motherland.”


Malak Shalabi, ’18

Hometown: Mill Creek, Washington

Major: Law, Economics & Public Policy

Shalabi’s family are refugees scattered throughout the Middle East and the U.S. Her father’s father was born in Palestine but moved to Qatar in 1958. Born in Syria, Shalabi’s mother immigrated to Kuwait with her family during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad. She was visiting her brothers in the U.S. when the Gulf War broke out and devastated her community at home. “My mother ended up staying here because there was nothing to return to,” says Shalabi.

Test caption for Malak Shalabi family photo.

Shalabi (far right, in yellow) with her siblings and father in Saidnaya, Syria, in 2011, before the escalation of the civil war.

Shalabi’s father came to the U.S. for college and met her mother, who had worked hard to learn English and get into a top dental school. Even after they married and built new lives in America, they kept monitoring global politics that affected the friends, family and countries they loved.

“Al Jazeera was always on TV in our living room, especially during the invasion of Iraq and uprisings in Palestine. And when the revolutions [the Arab Spring] began in the Middle East, we were following all of it,” Shalabi says. “My parents would ask, ‘Do you truly know your roots?’ and it would provoke me to look into it more.”

Drawing from experience

While majoring in Law, Economics & Public Policy at UW Bothell, Shalabi was inspired by her professors to research the issues that have affected her family — and to use her perspective as a Muslim to guide her work. Bruce Kochis, who teaches at the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, “encouraged students to explore the idea of religion,” Shalabi says. “If I was talking about my faith, he would say, ‘Write about it. Explain it in your class.’ And that was something I had never really experienced before.”

When Shalabi sought out Kochis as an adviser for a research project, he continued urging her to draw from her personal experiences.

“He asked me, ‘What’s the one thing that sticks out to you when you speak to Syrians back home or here?’ says Shalabi. “And it was the torture” — specifically, the targeted torture and murder of Sunni Muslims in Syrian prisons.

For her research, Shalabi traveled to Amman, Jordan, where she visited a care center for Syrian refugees and spoke with a psychologist who treated victims of torture. She also interviewed a man who had survived a stint in a Syrian prison.

“I met with him in a café. People around us were laughing and enjoying their day, and he was calmly telling me the most horrendous things you could ever imagine being done to a person,” Shalabi says. “It hit me at that moment: There are many thousands of people detained in Syria right now. This is their reality — they’re living in an entirely different world.”

Bringing Syrian voices to Washington

Shalabi returned with a sense of responsibility to help share with Westerners the stories she’d heard during her travels. She had conducted the interviews in Arabic, which she grew up speaking at home, then translated them into English.

Test caption of landscape photo for Malak Shalabi story.

Overlooking the hills of Saidnaya, Syria, less than an hour’s drive north of Damascus. The Saidnaya military prison is notoriously brutal in its treatment of inmates.

Her resulting paper, an exploration of the cruel treatment in Syrian prisons, details sectarian abuses and examines the civil war’s religious dimensions. While much of the West’s attention is trained on ISIS, Shalabi focuses on those who are too often left out of the narrative: Syrian citizens marginalized by the government of Bashar al-Assad, especially those at odds with its increasingly sectarian leanings.

“The more I read, the more responsibility I felt,” she says. “This is a way of bringing the Syrian voice into the West.”

Shalabi’s work earned her an undergraduate research award. “My mother cried when I won,” she says. “It meant the world to her that her children are able to do what her generation and her father’s generation couldn’t: speak a word of justice against an oppressive tyrant.”

“Malak has an unquestionable commitment to giving voice to oppressed populations,” says Karam Dana, assistant professor at the UW Bothell School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences. “Her findings can help us study religious communities that are scrutinized, oppressed and targeted around the world.”

Active in the community

Staying connected to her roots has also motivated Shalabi to help others forge — or regain — connections to their homelands. For nearly a year, she ran Free Syria Seattle, a grassroots organization that engaged local activists with Syrians in a stand against oppression by facilitating discussions, art exhibits and protests.

More recently, Shalabi has begun teaching Muslim youth groups about the history of Syria and the Middle East. “Some people don’t even flinch when they see the news about the violence in Syria,” she says. “I want to share what I’ve learned with them.”

This fall, Shalabi is headed to UW Law School, where she intends to study international law. “Someday, I hope that I can use my J.D. to help promote justice in the Muslim world,” she says.