Student of the Year 2019: Ayah Kutmah
Ahead of my interview with LSA junior Ayah Kutmah, she emailed me an advance warning.
“I really hate talking about myself and my achievements,” she wrote.
Kutmah’s modesty was evident through our entire conversation at the State Street Espresso Royale.
The daughter of Syrian immigrants and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Kutmah was part of a small but tight-knit local Muslim community. Her mother would support many of the refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East that had resettled to rural Kentucky.
During what Kutmah describes as her formative years in high school, the brutal Syrian Civil War ignited. As relatives and other Syrians began arriving in Kentucky, the issues faced by those fleeing violence became much more immediate to her. Kutmah would follow in her mother’s footsteps by volunteering for a mix of local interfaith charities including the Kentucky Refugee Ministries, helping to welcome and tutor newly arrived refugees.
Upon finishing high school, Kutmah chose to attend the University of Michigan in no small part because she hoped to find a more vibrant local Muslim community than she found at home in Kentucky. However, arriving in Ann Arbor as a freshman, she described herself as feeling isolated from much of the work and personal impact she had when volunteering with refugees back home.
“I loved having that person-to-person interaction, and then when I came to college, I felt so removed from it — I was no longer working with people and just had classes,” Kutmah said. “I loved my studies and that was for me, but what was I doing for other people? It made me feel kind of selfish.”
Ultimately though, Kutmah found a like-minded group of students in the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, a student organization that conducts advocacy and volunteering work on behalf of the refugee community in Michigan. With several other students, she took her work further in founding REvive, a nonprofit that has conducted educational and vocational training workshops for refugees in the United States and Turkey.
“These types of things are always about being able to take what I’m learning at the University and not isolating it from the work and the activism I wanted to do,” Kutmah said. “I never wanted to lose that person-to-person impact.”
REvive aims to help resettled refugees overcome several key gaps to becoming independent in their new homes, Kutmah said, including language barriers and an unfamiliar new educational system. Having hosted multi-week workshops in Turkey, Louisville and Ann Arbor, REvive is also creating structured vocational and educational curriculums so other organizations can replicate these programs in other cities and countries. While their programming has been primarily targeting school-aged refugees, REvive has also reached older refugees, including working mothers looking to become certified nurses.
When asked for particularly memorable stories of refugees she has been able to help, Kutmah bashfully demurs. Saying she is wary of casting herself as a savior, Kutmah instead reflected on the human tragedy faced by many of the refugees she has met, while also fondly noting their own indomitable human spirits.
“What makes it so meaningful to me is when you’re doing these workshops and you see (refugees’) potential,” Kutmah said. “When I did the workshop in Turkey I cried a lot, for a lot of reasons, but part of it was seeing how bright these students were … they were brilliant students doing brilliant things going into a country with another language, yet with all those barriers still getting really high scores on all these tests.”
As for her own future plans, Kutmah hopes to turn REvive into a sustainable organization that will outlast her and her co-founder’s graduation next year. Ultimately, Kutmah hopes to pursue human rights law — she interned at Human Rights Watch last summer — as a natural continuation of her life’s work helping refugees. Describing much of her volunteer work as reactive to the human tragedies caused by oppressive regimes and failures by the international community, Kutmah hopes to ultimately work in a position where she can prevent these crises in the first place.
“The Syrian Revolution and the war that followed led to the refugee crisis, and there’s two ways you can tackle it,” Kutmah said. “You can either work with refugees … I really want to look at human rights law and transitional justice, understanding what led to these political systems and this repression, but then also how to address it.”