Libyan refugee charts path from MSU Denver to Harvard
After dropping off supplies for flood victims in her home country, this Criminal Justice and Criminology major is headed to the Ivy League.
After Ratag Abdelmalik receives her degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology from Metropolitan State University of Denver this month, she won’t skip a beat. She has a boat to catch: a cargo ship slated to carry a container of much-needed supplies to flood victims in her native Libya.
Abdelmalik helped collect every item while holding down a job, pursuing an accelerated path to a degree and ensuring a bright future in law as a Harvard graduate student. And as soon as she graduates, she’ll embark on a long-awaited road trip, making sure the items make their way to a Texas port on time.
Well-spoken, cheerful and smart, Abdelmalik is the very model of an MSU Denver student. But her future hasn’t always shone this brightly, and for a while it even seemed as if she might not attend college at all. Getting here took a legal struggle and a long fight for the confidence to carry on — challenges compounded by world events that turned her from an immigrant into a refugee overnight.
“It was very difficult for me,” said Abdelmalik, who moved to the United States with her family in 2008 so her mother could pursue a Ph.D.
Though Abdelmalik grew up as a Coloradan, her family always planned to return to Libya. But their plans were put on hold when in 2011, civil war broke out in Libya. It was the first of two conflicts pitting armed rebels against longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi’s government and, later, against one another.
“We literally had our bags packed” when war broke out, she said. “But it was really dangerous to return.”
Instead, the family stayed, and the remainder of Abdelmalik’s childhood was overshadowed by her complex legal status. As an applicant for asylum, she was disqualified for financial aid at many colleges and universities, putting higher education seemingly out of reach. “It was very difficult for me,” she recalled. “At one point, I really thought I wasn’t going to attend college.”
But an offer of in-state tuition — and an introduction to the women’s basketball program — put MSU Denver on Abdelmalik’s radar. “MSU Denver gave me the most opportunity,” she said, and she seized those opportunities with gusto. With support from the Office of Admissions, she entered MSU Denver during another disruption: the Covid-19 pandemic.
Abdelmalik wasn’t about to let armed conflicts or worldwide health crises slow her down. She decided to major in Criminal Justice and Criminology, following a passion for law fueled by her experiences with the justice system. Along the way, she made the Provost’s Honor List and became manager of the MSU Denver women’s basketball team, traveling with the team and building close relationships with student-athletes and her coaches. All this despite being unable to play due to her unpredictable schedule. “It was really good,” she recalled. “It still felt like I was part of the team.”
Meanwhile, the Abdelmalik family’s attempt to gain asylum in the U.S. continued. As the legal uncertainty dragged on, punctuated by court appearances and meetings with an immigration attorney, Abdelmalik focused on her studies and fellow MSU students, becoming active in the Muslim Student Association and working at the campus recreation center.
Along the way, she built supportive relationships with MSU Denver faculty and staff members, too, from her basketball coaches to University President Janine Davidson. Matthew Kring, director of college-completion and student-success initiatives for the Classroom to Career Hub, helped Abdelmalik connect to the resources she needed to complete her degree in three years.
Abdelmalik’s whirlwind education culminated in her acceptance to Harvard Law School, where she will begin studying next fall. She had applied in secret, unsure whether she could possibly qualify, and stunned her parents with news of her acceptance.
Around the same time, her story took another surprising turn when she learned of catastrophic flooding in Libya. The floods, caused by Tropical Storm Daniel, killed more than 4,300 people and made thousands more homeless, devastating the nation’s infrastructure and laying waste to basic services and beloved homes.
Characteristically, Abdelmalik decided to act, and quickly. Within days of learning of the flood, she had helped raise thousands of dollars in cash, clothing and hygiene products for the flood victims. So far, she has sent more than $10,000 in products and over $5,000 in monetary donations to Libya with the help of family members, friends in Colorado and Texas and nongovernmental organizations.
The work continues, and so does Abdelmalik, who finally obtained legal asylum in September. She credits MSU Denver with helping her keep pushing, even in the darkest days of her seeking refugee status. “It doesn’t matter how far away the finish line may seem or how the future may seem blurred,” she said. “You can force doors open just like I did.”