Piggy bank
Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
How to turn a modest gift into a dynamic little nonprofit, 28 scholarships, dozens of changed lives, and counting...
The letter from Texas had taken a couple of months to find its way to my desk in Cairo. Inside was a $100 bill and a brief note.

Every so often in journalism, something you write touches readers, and they feel moved to help. Usually, I was delighted when that happened, but this time my reaction was weary and ungenerous.

Getting the money to the intended recipient wasn't going to be easy. It meant another trip into violence and danger. For a minute or two, I thought about sending the money back to Texas.

In December of 1987, a Palestinian teenager stoned my car as I drove alone through the West Bank. I was new in my job as The Wall Street Journal's Mideast correspondent, and my editor had asked me to get an interview with one of the youths involved in the uprising that had suddenly erupted in Israel's occupied territories. So I jumped from my damaged car and chased after the boy, whose face was wrapped in a red-checked headscarf. We ended up spending the afternoon together in the crumbling four-room, raw-concrete hovel he shared with 12 younger siblings, and I subsequently wrote an article about an intelligent 15-year-old named Raed who wanted to be a doctor but knew there was no hope of such a future for a boy in his circumstances. Instead, he was willing to die, fighting with stones.

A hundred dollars was more than Raed's father, a laborer, earned in a month. It was sent by an ophthalmologist in Austin, along with a note asking me to pass it on to Raed and "let him know that if he wants to be a doctor, I'm prepared to help him"—a few scribbled words that promised a future to a boy who hadn't expected to have one.

So in April of 1988, I returned to the West Bank camp and made my way through trash-strewn alleys in search of Raed, who had refused to give me his last name. Finally, I learned that he had been arrested by the Israelis for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an army patrol and was in jail, awaiting trial. Unexpectedly, his father, a Hebrew-speaking moderate who worked on Israeli building sites and advocated Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, had also been arrested in a routine security sweep. He was being held without charge in a desert prison while the family, deprived of its only breadwinner, subsisted on handouts. I gave the $100 to Raed's mother, Rahme, who shared the crowded living quarters with her husband's second wife, Fatin. Rahme kissed the bill, and the two women called down God's blessings on the doctor in faraway Texas.

Rex Repass knew what it was to struggle to achieve an education. Raised in an underprivileged family in Dallas, he'd worked his way through college at the University of Texas, then joined the navy as a way to get to medical school. In 1988 he was 45, with a prosperous practice, a beautiful home, a private plane. His wife, Kathleen, had recently given birth to their first child. Repass read the Journal to keep track of his stock portfolio, but he was also keenly interested in foreign events. Almost a year after he sent me his letter, he came to Jerusalem himself, to volunteer for several weeks in a Palestinian eye hospital. While he was there, he met Raed's family, paid for food, medicine, and a lawyer for Raed, and renewed his pledge to fund Raed's education when he got out of jail.

A little over four years later, in 1993, I learned that Raed had finally been released from prison. I'd left Cairo by then, and was covering the Mideast from London. When I traveled to the West Bank that spring, I found Raed working 16-hour days in a Palestinian sweatshop, making plastic sandals and sleeping on the factory floor. I arranged to meet him there on his one day off, and then I set about calling Repass, to tell him that Raed was at last in a position to accept his help. In Austin, a receptionist answered my call. When I asked to speak to the doctor, there was a moment's silence on the other end of the line. "I'm sorry, but Dr. Repass died a year and a half ago."

He had taken his Beechcraft Bonanza up for a short flight on a sunny afternoon. The plane fell out of the sky, and neither the Federal Aviation Administration inspectors nor the private investigators Kathleen hired had been able to figure out why.

As I struggled to break the news to Raed, I realized that I wasn't capable of dashing the hopes I'd raised by bringing Repass into his life. After my husband and I talked it over, we decided to pay for Raed's education ourselves.

It took him a year to catch up on his high school studies, but in 1994 Raed was admitted to Bethlehem University. At 21, he felt too old for medical school, so he decided to study education instead. In 1998 he graduated with honors. I was there for his commencement, perched in the stands between Rahme and Fatin. I thought about Dr. Rex, and I hoped he'd be pleased by what his $100 bill had accomplished. I didn't know then that the yield on Repass's spontaneous act of generosity was about to be amplified many times over.

In February of 1999, I wrote an article for The Washington Post Magazine about Raed's long journey to his college graduation. Within days of its publication, out of the blue I got a call from a Palestinian-American Quaker, who introduced himself as a retired educator. "You're Australian and you're Jewish, and yet you helped that boy," he said. "I as a Palestinian want to help, too."

Fahim Qubain and his wife, Nancy, proceeded to set up the Hope Fund, a tiny nonprofit they ran from their kitchen table in Lexington, Virginia. Their mission was to find young Palestinian refugees, like Raed, who were academically gifted but whose poverty made higher education an unreachable dream. By trial and error, Qubain, now a passionate and persuasive 85-year-old, hit on a successful formula for helping the maximum number of students despite operating with a very small donor base. His first breakthrough was to convince Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, to share his vision and provide two four-year scholarships in 2001. He then asked Amideast, a long-established nonprofit devoted to increasing educational cooperation between the United States and the Arab world, to identify gifted students. He used his own money, plus small donations, to pay for the students' travel, medical insurance, and whatever else they needed, whether it was a warm winter coat or a desk lamp.

One of the first two scholarship recipients was Hanan Dahche, one of 11 children of a lathe operator, who was living in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon. When told of her chance to go to college in America, she at first asked if the scholarship could be transferred to her older brother. But the Hope Fund is committed to educating equal numbers of young women and men, and Hanan's parents were eventually persuaded to let her go. Two years into her degree, she was spending her summers at NASA, designing advanced composites for radiation shields. On graduation, she obtained further scholarships and is now completing a PhD in biochemistry at Virginia Tech. She hopes to teach at the American University of Beirut.

The other scholarship recipient in 2001 was Khaled El-Nemr, the oldest of six children whose father, a tailor, could barely support his Beirut family because of diabetes. Khaled, too, won further scholarships and is now completing a PhD in materials science engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The success of these first two students eventually made it easier for the Qubains to persuade other colleges to join their mission. They now have 12 partnering colleges, and some are offering multiple scholarships. The Hope Fund has six graduates, 16 returning students in the United States, and six more just starting in the fall.

Each student arrives with his or her own story of hardships overcome. Hiba Assi, one of six girls in an impoverished family in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, never believed she would have a chance to go to college. A sibling had won a UN scholarship for higher education, and the program's rule was that only one scholarship could be awarded per family, no matter the other siblings' academic achievement. Nevertheless, Hiba worked hard at her studies and hoped for another miraculous kind of aid. It came in the form of a Hope Fund scholarship to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. But just days before she was to leave, the rockets of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah began falling. The Qubains, expecting to meet Hiba's flight, lost track of her and feared she had been killed. Instead, with her family, she risked heavily bombed roads to escape across the border to Syria, where the U.S. embassy in Damascus quickly issued her visa just days before classes were to start. She has excelled in college as a physics and math major, with a special interest in quantum dense coding.

In the fall of 2007, Yahia Abu Hashem missed what would have been his freshman year at Roanoke when Israel and Egypt closed the crossing points from Gaza in retaliation for Hamas attacks. He had recently lost his best friend to an Israeli rocket while walking by his side in Gaza. The college extended the scholarship for a year, but Gaza remained sealed. As time ran out, Yahia, desperate, camped by the crossing point into Egypt, waiting for three days and nights until he got the chance to risk making a run across the border. He arrived in Virginia sunburned and exhausted, just in time to enroll in computer science and business.

Manal Zaher despaired of even finishing high school because of her family's poverty. "Whenever I read about a genius scientist, my passion for science would jump all over the place and I imagined myself doing something great," she says. Then, as reality set in, she would weep and her mother would try to comfort her, telling her not to abandon hope. Manal secured a place in a UN–run high school and is now at Bryn Mawr. During her last summer break, she returned to her former school, bringing donated lab equipment, and ran a summer school for other refugees with big dreams.

As for Raed, the former angry stone-thrower, I last saw him in Sydney in 2004. He was there on business, an executive for a Saudi firm whose mission is to advise Arab students on programs available at universities overseas. He was married, with a family and a home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. No longer confined by razor wire and stunted hopes, he regularly traveled the world. And that's a pretty good return on $100.

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