Ohio State professor Hollie Brehm was in for a surprise.
The sociology instructor was in her office last April meeting with one of her star students — Abd Al-Rahman Traboulsi.
The Syrian American mentioned to Brehm that he’d launched a crowdfunding effort to rush aid to a pair of Syrian hospitals destroyed by a government-backed airstrike. “Unsurprised by his ever-present initiative, I asked him how much he had raised,” recalled Brehm in an email. “Expecting an answer of several thousand dollars, my jaw dropped when Abd Al-Rahman shared he had raised over $100,000.”
Just another day’s work in the life of Traboulsi, a senior biomedical engineer major who graduated this past May as one of the academic stars of Buckeye Nation. Traboulsi left a shining legacy at Ohio State of sterling accomplishments as a member of an Ohio State engineering team that won a national competition, a Pelotonia cancer research fellow and as the founder of an Ohio State student group — Refuge — committed to helping refugees from around the world gain access to higher education. He also recently won Ohio State's Undergraduate Student Award for Excellence in Community Service.
“Coming to Ohio State was the best decision I could have made," he said. "I don’t think that if I would have gone to an Ivy League school I would have been able to have the diversity of experiences, and I wouldn’t be the same person that I am today.”
“I think what sets him apart is his will to act,” wrote Brehm. “Many people lament violence or human rights abuses in the world, but they stop there. Abd Al-Rahman, on the other hand, believes we also have a duty to act.”
Traboulsi’s willingness to throw himself headlong into projects with “an intensity coupled with great enthusiasm” made him a standout student researcher in the lab of Ohio State Comprehensive Cancer Center Director Dr. Michael Caligiuri, according to Bethany Mundy-Bosse, a PhD researcher who worked alongside the suburban Cincinnati student studying how leukemia cells work.
“He’s always striving to understand the why and asking questions constantly,” said Mundy-Bosse. “He really goes the extra mile to put the pieces together.”
Traboulsi’s work ethic and passion have made a strong impression on close friend Wesley Yao. “Last year, when he was working on getting into medical school, he was probably the most determined I’ve ever seen anyone,” Yao said. “I don’t remember him coming home many nights — that’s how many all-nighters he was pulling. It was just a constant for him; he never took a break from what he had to do.”
Ask the devout Muslim what inspires his work ethic, and Traboulsi points to a series of trips he has taken in recent summers to Syrian and Turkish border towns working in refugee camps alongside his mother, and later working to triage patients in blood-drenched field hospitals.
“My experiences in Syria motivate me to push myself beyond where other people are willing to go,” he said. “It grounds you on a daily basis because those memories don’t leave.”
Those memories served as the centerpiece for an emotional TEDX talk Traboulsi gave in March 2016 focusing on the human side of the Syrian conflict, which has destroyed his family’s hometown of Homs and killed or displaced millions of Syrians over the past five years.
“I wanted people to find out what was happening, and I wanted to make sure they recognized it as a human experience,” said Traboulsi. “When I got on stage, my heart just took over. I had just gotten back from Syria months before, so it was real recent in my mind.”
A few short months after his TED talk, Traboulsi had another striking conversation in rural Michigan where he lived during a summer internship with GM working on car safety engineering. (The internship was open to Traboulsi for being part of the Ohio State engineering team that won the company’s national Innovation Challenge.)
Dressed in his traditional Middle Eastern tunic known as a thobe, Traboulsi was eating alone at a diner when an older man approached him and spit on his table and cussed him out for being a Muslim.
Traboulsi stayed cool and didn’t react to the provocation, but minutes later called a waitress over and secretly paid for the man’s meal. “I wrote on the check, ‘From your friendly Muslim neighbor,’” he recalled with a faint smile over a burger at the Blue Danube diner recently.
When the man got up to leave the Michigan restaurant and was told Traboulsi had already paid for him, he apologized for his earlier behavior and the two began an unlikely heart-to-heart talk. “He sat down and we had a great conversation and we talked about religion and Islam,” Traboulsi said. “At the end of the conversation he said, ‘I wish you could come to my Bible study group so people could learn about Islam.’” At the Blue Danube, Traboulsi leaned back as he savored the memory of that moment. “Just in that one interaction you have changed a person’s perspective; I think it’s very beautiful to be able to do that,” he said.
Yao said his friend is driven to great lengths, at times, to shatter stereotypes others may have of Muslims in this country. “By doing these amazing things and just by being the person he is, he is changing stereotypes by showing, not telling,” he said.
The restaurant incident is fitting in character for Traboulsi, according to Brehm who said the graduating senior is “one of the most humble, kind-hearted” people she has ever known. “He is, quite simply, a stellar human being and someone who uplifts and inspires all who know him,” she wrote.
Traboulsi may have special qualities, but in other ways he’s a typical college student who loves nothing more than hanging with his buddies at their house on Chittenden — they have dubbed it the “Muslim frat house” — or blowing off steam with some pick-up hoops.
The gangly 6’2 Traboulsi — who seems like a safe bet to grab a few rebounds on any blacktop court in town — said some of his favorite college memories are squaring off between the white lines in the student center against former Buckeye stars like Greg Oden and D’Angelo Russell.
“When he dunks on you, it’s OK, because it’s Greg Oden,” he said, laughing about being “poster—ized” by the NBA’s top draft pick.
During an hour-long interview, the closest Traboulsi comes to bragging about any of his accomplishments is when he swears he held his own against Russell, a current Los Angeles Lakers guard. “I could actually post him up and score because he wasn’t that strong,” he said. “But when he got in the open court, oh man, he had me on skates with his dribbling and passing.”
Traboulsi said he finds a spirit of cooperation on the basketball court that fits well with his philosophy of life. “Once you get that groove going, and everyone is sharing the basketball, it’s so much fun,” he said. “I love it.”
As a recent grad, Traboulsi reflected back on why his four years at Ohio State have allowed him to soar. “I don’t think I would be the same person that I am today because I enjoy the diversity of students here,” he says.
Brehm said the Columbus campus is perfect for students who want to reach for the stars, but are pulled in different directions. “We don’t only work within our academic silos, and this means that students who have wide-ranging interests that span well beyond their discipline can thrive,” she wrote.
Today, Traboulsi is carrying forward his aspirations of helping immigrants through medicine. But he also carries a simple dream that is grounded in the soil of Syria, a dream of a time when his family can again break bread together in their homeland. “I dream about that a lot,” he said. “I hope there is a day when we can come back together and have a family dinner. But who knows how long it is going to take? This war does not seem like it is ending anytime soon.”