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SMU professor to return to campus after being trapped in Gaza for 12 years

A faculty and student-led initiative secured Dr. Isam Shihada an invitation to return to SMU through the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF)
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Susanne Scholz
SMU professor Susanne Scholz in the West Bank in 2018.

His life was hanging in the balance.

SMU Human Rights Professor Rick Halperin could hear the cries and screams of Dr. Isam Shihada’s kids and wife over a phone call. Bombs were going off in the background.

For the past 12 years, since 2012, Shihada has been stuck in Gaza, unable to leave due to Israeli blockades. His wife and three kids were trapped with him as well.

Now, through the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) and a sponsorship from SMU, Dr. Shihada is returning to campus on June 1. He crossed the border into Egypt in March and has been waiting for his passports to return from Ramallah, a city in the West Bank.

“I am proud of SMU for hosting me and giving me and my family a safe place and for giving us hope after going through much horror in Gaza,” Shihada said in a statement to the Daily Campus.

The effort began in Nov. 2023 after the situation escalated in the region on Oct. 7. It was led by SMU professors Susanne Scholz and Rick Halperin, who previously worked with Shihada when he was here under a similar sponsorship in 2009. For months, it was at a standstill.

Between emails and texts with Shihada, Scholz would worry that he was dead as attacks on Gaza continued.

“It was tragic that it could be him and his family [as victims of the attacks] at any moment,” Scholz said.

Then, Scholz met two students at the Palestinian Solidarity Committee walkout in February, Sally Ayass and Manar Abusaad. Ayass and Abusaad spearheaded the effort and had a letter signed by 35 student organizations on campus, asking for SMU’s sponsorship.

First page of the letter sent to SMU on behalf of Dr. Shihada.
Second page of letter sent to SMU on behalf of Dr. Shihada.

Even as the two students banded together to move the process forward quickly, Scholz’s same worry persisted in all of them. They would go days, sometimes weeks without hearing from Shihada.

“We didn’t even know if he was alive throughout the process of doing this,” Abuasaad said.

After emailing out the letter, a mere 72 hours later, they heard back. SMU had approved the sponsorship.

“It was so emotional,” Ayass said. “We are helping change someone’s life.”

During Shihada’s first sponsorship, he was at SMU until 2012.

“I have very fond memories of my time at SMU from 2010 to 2012. These were the best years for me as a scholar and for my family as a person,” Shihada said.

Shihada returned to Gaza with his family when his father became ill. Since then and until March 2024, he was unable to leave.

Weeks after his sponsorship was approved, Shihada escaped to Egypt and as of May 9, he is still waiting for both him and his family’s passport return and VISA approval to travel to the United States.

“I’m just relieved that he and his family are alive,” Abusaad said. “I’m relieved and happy that they’re out and we were able to help move that process forward.

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About the Contributor
Sara Hummadi
Sara Hummadi, Video Editor
As video editor, Sara works with the social media editor to develop video content for The Daily Campus. She works with the newsroom to develop a "Question of the Week," relevant to SMU students, which helps us get to know our community a lot better. Sara was previously news editor of The Daily Campus in fall 2023 and works as a digital news intern at NBC Channel 5 in Dallas.