By Isabel Hicks
Maryanne Alhallak has accomplished more in her 15 years of living than most of us can in our entire lifetimes, including graduating this year as a junior. Her determination and intelligence go beyond her 5’1 stature, and she radiates a sense of humility and wisdom far beyond her years.
Alhallak’s story begins in Syria, where she lived for the first six years of her life. The country was ravaged by war, but as a child she was for the most part oblivious to the devastation and brutality occuring around her.
One average morning, Alhallak sat in her high chair eating breakfast while her mom got her brother ready for school. She said goodbye and he went out on his way to school. Then, at that very moment, to everyone’s horror, a bomb went off.
“Just as my mom was walking to her bedroom, the bomb hit and went through the building,” Alhallak said. “The moment the bomb hit, we could hear there were bullets outside.”
Alhallak’s brother was outside within 500ft of the bomb when it detonated. Although he survived, the incident traumatized her family for life. Her mom then decided that it was time to flee. Together, Alhallak, her parents, siblings and grandparents left Syria in haste and flew to Beirut.
Not even 24 hours after they escaped, while they were waiting for a flight in Beruit to connect them to France, her school was bombed, killing all of her closest friends at the time.
“All four of my friends that I hung out with and sat with every single day died,” Alhallak said. “I made it out of there in a span of 24 hours.”
This shook her to her core, and the guilt of making it out of Syria when her friends didn’t get that chance follows her to this day.
She struggled with coming to terms with how ignorant people seemed towards the world, realizing that no one was really doing anything for the good of humanity. To make matters worse, six months into living in America, her father had to return to Syria, and thanks to Trump’s travel ban on all Muslims and Middle Easterners, her dad ended up getting stuck there. Alhallak hasn’t seen him in over ten years.
While adjusting to her new normal in a new country, learning English was her biggest priority.
“It was the most embarrassing thing ever,” Alhallak said. “I would come home crying to my mom saying ‘I have no clue what anyone is saying.’”
Alhallak was determined to master the language so that she wouldn’t be humiliated in school.
“My mom would sit and work with me, and I would practice English for hours upon hours of the day,” she said. “For that reason, English has really become an integral part of my life. It’s part of the reason that even though I’m interested in the stem field, anything that has to do with public speaking has really stuck with me.”
Upon discovering her love for English and mastering it, she began to turn to writing as an outlet. At age nine, she wrote and published a series of books, with support from her teachers and mother.
“I did not at all intend to become an author, but I wrote this 150 paged novel at age nine and showed it to my teacher and she freaked out,” Alhallak said. “Writing sort of just became my pathway for emotions, and a way for me to escape from this reality.”
Together with her teacher, Alhallak published her first book, “The Three Bakersteers.” She went on to publish two more books for the series and had a successful book signing in which she sold 150 books.
In freshman year, Alhallak joined the Model United Nations team. She is currently serving as a Secretary of Research for VRMUN. She also joined the speech team in her sophomore year, which she credits greatly for improving her speaking and writing skills. This year, she founded the school’s first Mock Trial Team.
Alhallak’s personal favorite accomplishment is a product she developed with the science team last year.
“It’s the size of an apple pen and it can calculate the fats, calories, proteins, and carbohydrates of any given dish at any given time,” Alhallak said.
All you would have to do is deposit a small amount of food from the dish you’d like to test, and within 10 to 15 minutes all the data would display on an app. The product led the team to winning third place in a UCLA competition and a finalist in the Paradigm Challenge.
The Demeter Team, a branch of the science team, is focused on developing the most accurate prototype, and their hope is to make the app available for everyone, especially people with diabetes who need to monitor the sugar and carbohydrates in the food they consume. Alhallak is currently head of the Science Olympiad, and secretary of the science team.
Alhallak feels like she constantly has to go above and beyond because of the guilt she feels for fleeing Syria and making it out alive. A lot of her motivation and drive come from the trauma of everything that happened to her. The memories of all her friends from Syria and the realization that they no longer exist continue to haunt her.
“I feel more comfort in being stressed than not being stressed,” Alhallak said. “That’s sort of the motivation and fuel, the idea that I cannot waste a single second before I try to help people because they are counting on me.”
Her ultimate goal is to be in a position of power where she can help people. The first step to achieve that is to attend a top university that will launch her forward in her career. She also hopes that later on in life she can go into philanthropy to help people in poverty and better the world. Her incredible journey is just getting started.