Community feature: Ohio State Rhodes Scholar heads abroad to tackle foreign policy

Erica Thompson
Laila Ujayli

One afternoon when Laila Ujayli was in seventh grade, she found suitcases in her bedroom. Her parents informed her they would be leaving their home in Dublin, Ohio, to move to Saudi Arabia.

“[They] were like, ‘We're just going to give this a shot,'” Ujayli said of her Syrian parents, who wanted the family to be closer to their home country. They settled on a U.S. compound that Ujayli likened to “a suburb in Florida.”

“It was not subject to the rights restrictions that other Saudi citizens are forced to endure,” she said. “Women can drive. There's no limitation to what you can wear. There's a theater and a cafe and a restaurant. So it was like living in a small town. And then the minute you walked past the walls, you were actually in Saudi.”

Despite the insulation, Ujayli had an up-close view of the turmoil in the Middle East; she was there during the Arab Spring anti-government uprising, as well as the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.

“I think it really helped change my perspective of the world,” she said.

Ujayli's family returned to Ohio for her senior year of high school. Her time abroad, as well as her experience as a Syrian American Muslim in America, informed her education at Ohio State, where she studied English and international relations. Named the school's seventh Rhodes Scholar, the 2018 graduate will build on her interest in foreign policy this October as she pursues a master's degree at the University of Oxford in England.

“She's a fascinating student,” said Dr. James Moore III, vice provost for the Office of Diversity & Inclusion (ODI) at Ohio State. “She's committed to social justice and equity.”

Ujayli was also a recipient of the ODI's Morrill Scholarship.

“First and foremost, it is based on academic merit,” Moore said. “Second, it's not based on your race, gender or the different identity constructs that people typically use. It's about what you are doing around diversity and inclusion to make the world better.”

While attending OSU, Ujayli found an unexpected medium in screenwriting.

“I was taking this cultural diplomacy class, and a professor asked, ‘What was the most important movie of all time that could bridge the understanding between cultures?'” Ujayli said. “And I was like, ‘There's no movie like that that exists for the Middle East. Largely, the Middle East has been demonized in the media.'”

Ujayli said she “caught the bug” and began exploring the connection between narrative and foreign policy, writing short films on the Syrian Civil War, as well as a feature screenplay on a Middle Eastern historic epic. Her work has been recognized in multiple film competitions.

“Narrative is a way to communicate issues to a larger, non-expert audience,” Ujayli said. “I'm a firm believer that the reason our foreign policy can be so damaging is that a lot of Americans don't know what our foreign policy is actually doing on a day-to-day basis. People don't vote about foreign policy. It's because it seems so far away, and I think narrative can help bridge that gap, and get people more engaged.”

Some of the current, overtly racist discourse surrounding Muslims was not what Ujayli experienced growing up in Dublin.

“You were aware that you kind of stood out a little bit from the rest of the community, but because Dublin was so welcoming, I never really felt it as a barrier or an obstacle,” she said. “It was just a part of my identity, and something that my parents emphasized.”

Now, instead of letting the “toxic” political climate discourage her, Ujayli is motivated to effect change. She is currently completing a fellowship with the advocacy organization Win Without War in Washington, D.C.

“The election in 2016 and what happened is an outgrowth of the misunderstanding and the ignorance that already existed, and that we just weren't talking about,” she said. “It shines a light on that ignorance, and you hope that sunlight is a disinfectant. … I was lucky enough to live overseas and to have this perspective that other people in the Midwest might not have. It's good for me to enter this conversation and the political space at this certain time.”