The six Rum sisters (from left) Etaf, Leya, Ruba, Dania, Samah and Saja, hope their scholarship removes barriers to higher education for other young women.
Their parents grew up in impoverished refugee camps but provided their children a beacon of hope
Sept. 14, 2023
They lived in a cramped apartment in New York City, eight siblings facing the daily uncertainties and pressing weight of poverty. Yet compared to their parents, who grew up amid the constant danger and relentless hopelessness of Palestinian refugee camps, the children’s world within the thin walls of the family’s two-bedroom unit held endless possibilities and big dreams.
The six sisters and two brothers relied upon one another for strength and camaraderie, while their father worked long hours in a pet supply shop and their mother poured her heart into raising them.
The girls forged an especially close bond during those challenging years. “I think we kept each other sane,” says Ruba Rum, the fourth oldest of what would eventually be nine Rum children. “We were all in it together — struggling together, yes, but surviving and finding ways to have fun together, too, even in the hard times.”
Just as their parents came to America seeking a fresh start, the sisters followed a path to new opportunities — remarkably, leading all six to USF. Now they hope to provide opportunities for young women confronting hurdles of their own.
They have created the Rum Diversity Scholarship to provide more avenues to higher education for minority students, and are now trying to raise the $25,000 necessary to permanently endow it. The fund will support minority women who have a financial need, have demonstrated involvement in diversity through service or educational activities, and plan to give back to their communities after graduation.
The scholarship sprang from a conversation last year between Ruba, who’s working on her clinical psychology doctorate at USF, and one of her close friends. “I was telling her about an idea of starting a scholarship to give back when I graduate,” Ruba explains. “And she said, ‘Well, you have all these sisters who share your passion and are all in different fields, why don’t you start this scholarship together?’ I reached out to my sisters, and they all embraced the idea without hesitation.”
Each of the sisters chose career paths of service, adds Saja.
“It was clear we were all brought up to value helping others and were impacted by the sacrifices made by our parents,” she says. “This scholarship is a representation of that.”
The Rum sister act includes the eldest, Etaf, who attended USF as a freshman and sophomore (2006–’08) and is now an entrepreneur and a New York Times best-selling novelist; bookkeeper Samah, ’12 and MA counselor education ’16; physician assistant Saja, biomedical sciences ’12; USF graduate student Ruba, health sciences and psychology ’14 and MS medical sciences ’17, with two years to go on her PhD; board-certified behavior analyst Dania, MA applied behavior analysis ’18; and first-year medical student Leya, biomedical sciences ’22.
They have three brothers: pharmacist Atef, biomedical sciences, ‘16; USF cybersecurity undergraduate student Saji, and high school student Mohammad.
“To qualify for the scholarship, the recipient would have experienced some sort of barrier when it comes to higher education, whether it is financial or having to work while earning their degree,” says Samah. “I’m now in a financial place where I can give back. And if all of us pull together, we can make a difference and bridge the gap between underprivileged students and higher education.”
Etaf has already reached literary heights. Her 2019 debut novel, “A Woman is No Man,” an exploration of three generations of Palestinian women, was called “emotional and gripping” by the New York Times and included as a Washington Post 10 Books to Read. She was proud and excited to join the scholarship initiative with her younger sisters.
“We come from a family that is very invested in female empowerment and diversity,” says Etaf. “So I was not surprised when my sister Ruba gave us a call and said, ‘Let’s start a scholarship for underprivileged women and give them a voice, highlight them, and help them on their journey.’”
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A different kind of journey — the one experienced by their parents, Said (pronounced Sa-yeed) and Asma (pronounced Es-mah) — shaped the sisters’ lives and ultimately led to their philanthropic endeavor through the USF Foundation. That story dates to 1948, when both sets of their grandparents were forced from their homes in Palestine during the Arab-Israeli War and ended up in refugee camps. Said and Asma grew up in extreme poverty, living in nylon tents with limited access to sewer systems, running water, schools or infrastructure.
Palestinians lived in constant peril within the camps — non-compliance, such as trying to leave — could be deadly.
“Any movement or form of resistance was automatically a threat to their physical life, but also to their emotional and intellectual life,” Etaf says. “They had no access to any of the things we take for granted. And I think it’s important to understand how being raised with that mindset instilled in all of us the belief that education is so important — that it’s a privilege to even have access to it.”
In the late 1970s, their father immigrated with his family to the United States. Speaking no English, they settled in Brooklyn, and Said — the oldest son among 10 siblings — took whatever jobs he could to help the family get by in a new land. Said returned to Palestine for a visit, and his marriage to Asma was arranged. The young couple began a new life in America, starting over with virtually nothing.
Said and his father soon opened a corner deli in Manhattan, selling typical New York fare like bagels and sandwiches. He had a dream of going into hotel management and briefly enrolled in a community college, but abandoned that plan to pour himself into earning a living.
“They were both just trying to survive,” Etaf says. “All the financial burden fell on my father, and my mom was 18 when she came here. She got pregnant right away, and she stayed home with the kids, either pregnant or with a newborn for 20 years.”
Said provided not only for his siblings, but for his own growing family. He opened a second deli, and then went on to run the pet supply shop for some 14 years. But life in the big city proved increasingly costly and unsustainable, especially since he sent his children to Arabic and Muslim schools to stay close to their culture, traditions and native language.
That led him to a momentous decision. A family friend was opening a convenience store in Florida and the timing seemed right for a move south. A new chapter and direction in their lives were about to begin.
• • •
The store was called Seventh Heaven, located on Busch Boulevard in Tampa. And it would become a little slice of heaven for the family that would soon number 11.
They moved into a small house nearby, where the ninth Rum child would be born. The siblings adapted well, excelling in school. And Etaf — 17 at the time of the big move — soon applied to and was accepted at the school with the omnipresent billboards near their home, USF. Education in general, and USF specifically, would light their way forward.
“My dad was on his feet day and night, mom spent all her time caring for us, and neither had access to higher education,” Etaf says. “And I think that made us all realize that without an education, you are essentially powerless. Especially as girls, that instilled a fear of entering the world without the shield of an education.”
Their parents placed a premium on education for the children as well, instilling the importance of excelling in school. USF fit the bill perfectly. It was only five minutes from their house. And it allowed the siblings to stay close to home — much to their parents’ relief — while attending a top-flight, affordable institution with a diverse and global student population.
All the while, their parents continued to work long hours. Said eventually opened his own convenience store south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, making the hour-long drive from Tampa to Parrish and back every day. And in time, with her younger children growing up, Asma enrolled in Hillsborough Community College to pursue her own education and today works as a middle school Quran teacher at Bayan Academy in Tampa.
It is a long way from life in a refugee camp and far from the difficult years making a new life in New York City. Now, Said and Asma can watch with excitement as their children thrive in careers and in education — with their youngest planning to follow his siblings’ path to USF.
They can also feel pride in the knowledge that their six daughters are building a bridge for other young women, hoping to remove barriers to higher education.
“They’re definitely proud of us,” Ruba says. “I often reflect on the obstacles we all faced growing up. But despite those challenges, I remind myself that I had the privilege of growing up with sisters who were my role models. We all helped each other. Our experiences and genuine camaraderie fueled our collective desire to give back, even if in the smallest of ways.”