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Sept. 6, 2013

Raeuf Roushangar: Accomplishing much with little

Sept. 6, 2013

“‘My only request is that he doesn’t mention his religion in school,’ the principal told my mother. I was just starting first grade, standing beside my mother at the time, and while I didn’t understand, I just did what I was told.”

Raeuf Roushangar, now an MSU biochemistry and molecular biology senior, recalls that moment to this day.

He was born in Oman—a small country on the Persian Gulf—to an Iranian father and an Egyptian mother. Unlike the majority of Egyptians and Iranians, he was of the Bahá'í faith.

When Roushangar was four years old, his father left his family in Oman to return to his homeland of Iran due to a serious health condition. Roushangar’s mother took him and his two brothers and returned to her homeland of Egypt.

“There, I endured hateful and discriminatory actions for nearly two decades due to Egypt’s intolerance of religions other than Islam and Christianity.”

In Egypt, religion is as fundamental as gender, Roushangar explained. “Religion is documented on government identification, pronounced in dress and even displayed as part of physical appearance. Because religion is omnipresent, hostility toward minority faiths can quickly turn from uncomfortable to unlawful.

“My classmates and their families shunned me. To survive the hate, I had to adapt. To live through the agony, I had to mature more quickly.”

When he was in 12th grade, he scored second highest in Cairo, Egypt, on the college placement test. But he found out he’d been removed from the top ten list because his father was not Egyptian. After his first year of college at Cairo University, he was suspended because of his faith.

“The only chance I had to continue my higher education was to come to the United States,” Roushangar said.

In 2008, he left Egypt and traveled alone to Grand Rapids, Mich. All he brought with him was a small amount of money for food.

During the first six months, he was homeless. “I didn’t have a source of income, I didn’t have anything. I didn’t know where to start.”

Though he had relatives who lived in Grand Rapids, Roushangar said, “I’ve always been independent. I wanted to find my own way.”

At night, he walked the streets. During the day, he spent time at the library, which he described as a source of enlightenment; it provided a safe place to sleep, as well as a treasure trove of knowledge.

When asked how it felt to be homeless those first few months in the United States, Roushhanger responded: “I had never felt more free, welcomed and secure in my life.”

He eventually found his way to Grand Rapids Community College where he got a tutoring job.

“In my life, I always find people who believe in me,” Roushangar said. “The people in charge of the tutoring service at the college believed in me.”

After two years, he transferred to MSU and soon secured a position as an undergraduate research assistant in the lab of Brian Schutte, associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. He works alongside graduate student Youssef Kousa, who is also Egyptian.

“Youssef has played an important part in Raeuf’s life . . . bringing him into my lab, training him, working with him, mentoring him,” said Schutte. “Mentoring is really important—that’s a word we use a lot.” Roushangar adds that Kousa has been a great mentor outside of the lab as well.

Schutte’s research focuses on the gene that causes cleft lip (cheiloschisis) and cleft palate (palatoschisis), which are among the most common birth defects worldwide.

His research team consists of a diverse group of three graduate students and seven undergraduates. Nearly a dozen countries are represented in Schutte’s lab, including Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Spain, Germany, India and China.

Roushangar said that one of his best experiences at MSU has been “the opportunity to be involved in research like this with a great expert in the field—Dr. Schutte—and being mentored by one of the best grad students—Youssef.”

Roushangar plans to attend medical school after receiving his degree from MSU next year. He has applied to approximately 20 schools, including MSU. After medical school, he wants to serve the underserved.  His goal is to be a physician scientist, specializing in neurology.

He explains why. “Back in Egypt, I had met Hussein, a young man born in a Cairo slum, where the average family earns less than $1 a day. Hussein had a severe, debilitating neurological disease. Unable to afford to travel abroad for medical help, he lived for months with terrible pain that was tempered only by weak and ineffective over-the-counter medications. Unfortunately, Hussein died.

“A year after arriving in the United States, Hussein’s story stayed with me. I began to understand health disparities and inequality in access to health care. I developed a strong commitment toward social justice and wanted to dedicate my life to that cause.”

In September 2010, his freshman year at MSU, Roushangar approached fellow freshman and computer science major Marco Botros, who is also Egyptian, with an idea. “We need to do something for our country since we are fortunate to be here in the United States.” Roushangar founded the nonprofit organization Generate Help 2 Heal Generations (GH2HG), with Botros as co-founder.

They soon realized that their mission should be broader than “helping Egypt.” “Helping humanity is the goal,” Roushangar said.

The organization’s mission is to collect, catalog and ship unused medical supplies from the United States to poor communities around the world. To date, GH2HG has collected and shipped more than $250,000 worth of medical supplies. Approximately 300 student volunteers are involved each year.

In recognition of his many accomplishments, Roushangar was named the 2012-13 Michigan State University Leader of the Year and received a 2013-14 Pamela J. Fraker Undergraduate Scholarship, which is awarded to a biochemistry major who has demonstrated the capacity to achieve education and professional goals, the motivation to achieve those goals, and the initiative to seek opportunities to further his/her progress.

The scholarship was established in 2010 by Pamela J. Fraker, MSU University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology, who retired in May 2012 after 39 years in the department.

“The need among undergraduates for financial support is high,” Fraker said. “A bright, talented and kind generation is not getting the level of support they need from their state and national government. So I do what I can to provide further help.

“In my 40 years at MSU I have never met a student who has accomplished as much with so little as Raeuf,” Fraker said. “He exudes a quiet humanity that one readily feels when you interact with him. It’s an honor to provide a student like him some financial help.”

In August 2011 he traveled to Iran and was able to locate his father, whom he hadn’t seen since he was four years old. Roushangar currently keeps in touch via Skype with his mother and relatives in Egypt.

“The scars from my childhood experience remind me of how far I have come and how much farther I can still go,” Roushangar said.

“What I went through growing up has made me who I am today. I need to forget about the negative side and take that energy and convert it into being a better person. I would just hope that no one else has to go through what I did.”