Hope and heartbreak: McAuley grad inspired by trip to Syria
By Cheryl Dangel Bartolini Correspondent June 27, 2014 5:30PM
Lilian Maali is pictured with Yousef at a Zaatari refugee camp. | Supplied photo by Muna Odeh
Updated: June 30, 2014 2:10AM
Many students might think of Florida when they hear the words “spring break,” but Lilian Maali isn’t like most students.
When the recent graduate of Mother McAuley High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side had her spring break earlier this year, she went on a 10-day mission trip to Syria to visit a refugee camp, where she helped take care of the health care needs of Syrian refugees.
Maali, 17, accompanied her sister, Dr. Lana Maali, a clinical pharmacist at Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital, to Syria.
“My sister went on the same mission trip in November. The group goes every eight weeks, and when she came back, she told me about it,” Maali said. “I was inspired by her stories and I wanted to go there and help out.”
Maali felt compelled to help because she was born in Palestine, and her parents, Nadera and Mazen Maali, moved to the United States when she was 4 and settled in Burbank.
“My parents worked hard when we lived in Palestine,” she said. “We didn’t grow up wealthy. We had two bedrooms and six kids. My dad said he needed to move to America and start his life here because there would be more opportunities.”
She has enjoyed many of the opportunities her parents made possible for her, but her heart bleeds for the friends she left behind, particularly those in Syria.
“I am Middle Eastern and I feel for these poor people,” Maali said. “I wanted to do something. I’m not a medical professional, but I can hold their hand and let them know someone is there. I wanted to let them know that I am on their team and I am there for them.”
Because she speaks Arabic, Maali worked as a translator and gave advice on dental care to the refugees.
“I showed them how to brush their teeth and gave them a toothbrush and toothpaste,” she said.
The trip changed Maali’s outlook on life.
“I’ve always said my sister and my mom inspire me, but after this trip I am also inspired by people who have been through oppression when their homeland is under war,” she said. “These people have gone through such horrible stuff that I can’t imagine ever having dealt with it. They’ve gone through so much and have so much hope. I am so inspired by their sense of love for their country and the hope they have that they will return there.”
Back home, she wrapped up her senior year of high school, participating in science club and studying ballet at The Dance Shop in Chicago Ridge.
Come next school year, she will be studying at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
“I would love to get my degree in political science and then go into pediatric surgery,” Maali said. “I always had a passion for medicine and I thought I’d go into cardiac surgery, but now I’ve seen so many kids who need surgery because they have appendicitis, scoliosis or are suffering from a bone development or respiratory problems, so I think I want to help them.
“I’ve known people are in refugee camps who live without clean water and are starving, but then when you see what’s going on, you can’t believe what’s happening,” Maali said.
“Because I am from Palestine, I’ve witnessed oppression. I understand their pain,” she said. “I consider all of the Arabic-speaking countries one. I want to help them all out and I just really have so much pride in who I am as an Arabic woman. It keeps me going.
“I just want to help them out and make sure they are well and taken care of. So many young kids there have suffered traumatic events, like seeing a family member get shot, and they told me their stories. One boy named Abdullah was walking in the streets of Syria with bombs going off. He was rescued and taken to Jordan. He was mute and someone posted his picture on Facebook where his mom saw him and they were reunited. He is just 15 and is now in a wheelchair.
“They just want the basic human rights that we take for granted every day.”