Personal experience helps UO grad launch peacemaking career

December 14, 2022 - 5:00am

When Raimy Khalife-Hamdan was 5 years old, she and her family hurriedly left south Lebanon, escaping the bombs of the just-ignited 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Images of the conflict stalked her childhood dreams.

We are all products of our environments, but for Khalife-Hamdan, who graduated summa cum laude from the University of Oregon this spring, that potent early life experience has played an outsized role in carving out her academic and professional path so far.

Khalife-Hamdan said that, from a young age, she was fascinated by war and peace. She even named the kitten she got at age 6 after Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. As she grew older, returning to her family’s country every year, Khalife-Hamdan says she felt a deep need to help and listen to other people displaced by conflicts across the globe. And she wanted to gain a meaningful understanding of both religious co-existence and extremism in her native Lebanon and elsewhere.

“My deepest mission in life is to try to build peace in conflict-affected regions like the one I come from,” she said.

Following a stellar academic career at the UO’s Clark Honors College, Khalife-Hamdan was selected for a prestigious Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship this fall, making her one of five fellows chosen from more than 700 applicants. For the entirety of the 2022-23 academic year, she’s working at “Win Without War,” a prominent foreign policy advocacy coalition in Washington, D.C.  

This fall, Khalife-Hamdan also was selected as a finalist for the renowned Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, and a semi-finalist for the George J. Mitchell scholarship, to potentially pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom or Ireland.

Advancing so far for all three awards is a rare feat, said Kevin Hatfield, assistant vice provost for undergraduate research and distinguished scholarships.

“In complement to the rigor of her research and scholarship, Raimy brings a humanity to her academic study,” said Hatfield, whose Student Success team helped Khalife-Hamdan through the scholarship application and interview processes.

“Her work often bears witness to pain, trauma, and resilience in the interest of lifting the voices of the communities she engages with,” he said.

After graduating from Oregon Episcopal School in Portland in 2018, Khalife-Hamdan came to the UO on a Presidential Scholarship. Double majoring in global studies and romance languages, she quickly impressed her UO professors with the depth and thoroughness of her classwork.

“She was remarkably engaged, and the work she produced went far beyond the requirements of the course,” said UO English professor Steve Shankman.

Shankman said he and Khalife-Hamdan clicked over the class’ study of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote extensively about a person’s responsibility to “the other” and the power of face-to-face encounters as the starting point of humans’ ethical obligation to each other.

“She really wrestled with the central question of Levinas’ work in a substantive way,” Shankman said.

Khalife-Hamdan, meanwhile, credits her introduction to Levinas for “altering the way I see life,” and it helped inspire her 330-page thesis project: an ethnographic study of interreligious co-existence and religious extremism among young adults in Lebanon.

In torrid heat, Khalife-Hamdan conducted 33 face-to-face interviews in both Muslim and Christian villages for the project, all while the country dealt with political crises and shortages of fuel, food and electricity.

“The stories I heard helped reveal some of the hidden drivers of terrorism,” she said. “At the same time, the majority of young adults I spoke to want to reconceptualize identity and religion in Lebanon and detach from the old sectarian narratives and structures.”

UO professor of global studies Stephen Wooten advised Khalife-Hamdan on the project, often battling poor internet as they tried to connect while she worked from Lebanon. He described the final product as “well-crafted and insightful” and said her thesis review committee agreed that the scholarship was “in the elite class for even graduate(-level) work.”   

“She was resolved to represent (her interview subjects’) stories with honesty, compassion and tenderness and to making sure their life stories and perspectives are heard and appreciated,” Wooten added. “This is a sign of Raimy’s personal character and nature.”

While at the UO, Khalife-Hamdan also shined outside the classroom. She was selected to attend the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights as a first-year student and again as a senior, she presented five times at the UO’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, and she became Shankman’s assistant in his work as the UNESCO Chair in Transcultural Studies, Interreligious Dialogue, and Peace.

Making use of the four languages she speaks – Arabic, English, French and Spanish – Khalife-Hamdan interned as a translator and interpreter for an immigration law firm and an immigrant and refugee support organization in Portland. She volunteered for the Refugee Resettlement Coalition of Lane County and at Melissa Network, an organization for migrant and refugee women in Greece, during summer 2022. And she worked as an archivist for Their Story is Our Story, an organization that collects and shares first-hand accounts from refugees across the globe.

“I breathe in fires of anger that plague this world, and I cry oceans to extinguish them,” Khalife-Hamdan wrote in an award-winning poem, “Mujer de la tierra,” or Earth Woman, earlier this year. “I am a student of Earth: I observe her, touch her, taste her.”

While the global pandemic made her time as a UO undergraduate student “strange,” Khalife-Hamdan said primarily remote instruction allowed her to do more creative, face-to-face research and volunteer work in different locations.

“So many people have helped me along the way at UO,” she said. “I’m very appreciative of their support in helping to make my research and academic work better.”

Khalife-Hamdan said that working in Washington at “Win Without War” as a Scoville fellow this year is “extremely humbling.”

“The fact that research I do might end up being read by a U.S. congressional office, that’s stunning,” she said, recalling laboring over long papers that “would only be read by my beloved professors.”

But Khalife-Hamdan said she misses field work and talking to real people affected by U.S. foreign policy decisions.

“We have to be on the ground. You understand so much more about the real-life impacts when you really talk to people who have experienced those impacts,” she said. “And unfortunately, their voices are still so ignored.”

By Saul Hubbard, Undergraduate Education and Student Success