It was only one course — Professional Communications, with adjunct Maria Matarazzo — but for business administration major Rafal Thaher, being in a college classroom in spring 2021 felt like an incredible accomplishment.
“I never thought I’d be studying at UMass Lowell, or in the United States,” she says.
When Thaher was 9, death threats against her family forced them to flee war-ravaged Iraq for Syria. Four years later, with help from the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, Thaher’s family was granted refugee status in the United States. They moved to Lowell and were provided an apartment. Thaher didn’t speak English and was confused by her new surroundings — even the wood floors in her new home.
“I was the first person who entered the apartment,” she recalls. “I was walking, and then I felt like, oh my God, I’m going to fall down because I’m walking on the wood. It’s giving a sound like ‘tack, tack, tack.’ We don’t have houses made from wood (in Iraq); they’re made from concrete and cement.”
At Lowell High School, Thaher learned English and explored her interest in business. She had learned the art of henna from her mother as a youngster and, after taking an entrepreneurship class in high school, she started her own henna tattoo business, RfullaHenna.
“Every country has their own system, but I really love how the system works here: If you have the inspiration or energy to do it, just go ahead and start the business,” says Thaher, who in 2014 was named the Ernst & Young New England Youth Entrepreneur of the Year. Her business plan also won first place in Massachusetts in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship's Regional Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge.
Thaher graduated with an associate degree in business administration from Middlesex Community College in 2019. That summer, she spent two months in Greece as an airport management intern at Athens International Airport.
“That experience changed me a lot. It made me appreciate the United States and Lowell more,” says Thaher, who has also interned with the Massachusetts State Senate and worked as a product specialist for Apple.
As a volunteer translator and case worker with the International Institute of New England, a nonprofit organization that serves immigrants and refugees in the Boston area, Thaher helps families like her own with paperwork for Social Security, health insurance, food stamps and other programs.
“I learned a lot from my family about helping the community,” she says. “We see someone who needs help, we try our best to help them.”
After taking some time off from school during the COVID-19 pandemic (and putting her henna tattoo business on pause), Thaher decided to resume her studies in spring 2021. She says she chose the Manning School of Business after learning that one of her professors at Middlesex, Camelia Bouserdan, is also an adjunct faculty member at UML.
“She’s a great mentor who motivates me whenever I need help,” Thaher says.
While she was able to take that one in-person course her first semester, Thaher looks forward to the full campus experience in fall 2021.
“I’m very excited. I can’t wait to see faculty and advisors in person and go to student events,” she says. She has already joined Manning Collegiate DECA, the UML College Democrats, the Lebanese Student Association and the Turkish Cultural Club.
Thaher, who plans to attend graduate school, doesn’t know exactly where her business career will take her. But after coming this far, the possibilities seem limitless.
“I have a lot of ideas that I want to work on,” she says. “I’m very entrepreneurial.”