YES Programs



Empowerment through Mental Health Education

Two photos of Tala with her host mom. The first photo is from 2015 and they are embracing. The second photo is from 2018 and they are standing next to each other, smiling

By Tala Shurrab (YES 2014–2015, Gaza, placed by PAX in Richland, MO)

I remember when I was 15 years old, and my single goal was to leave Gaza and never return. At the time, I was overly dependent on my family, and I didn’t leave the house unless I was with my mom or my two closest friends. At school, I got good grades, but never voiced my opinion. During social interactions, I didn’t say a word unless it was to my family or closest friends. I heard of the YES program but never thought of applying until my mom encouraged me to give it a try. Although I never believed in myself, my parents did. I applied, but never thought that getting admitted would be a real possibility. Now I am 22, I completed a B.A. in psychology with high distinction, and I aspire to further my studies through a master’s program. 

After my acceptance to the YES program, while preparations to leave were underway, a military assault took place in Gaza. On a personal level, I was secretly relieved to know that there could be a possibility that I would lose the scholarship if the assaults continued. But thankfully the assaults ceased, and I took on the most challenging and life-changing journey of my life. I was placed in Richland, Missouri, and experienced the lifestyle of two different host families. 

Despite being oceans away, I was haunted by nightmares and flashbacks from the war, which held me down every time I tried to adapt. In my first host family, we had trouble communicating and understanding one another, and it didn’t end up being the best fit. That first half of the journey taught me to never feel helpless during life’s obstacles.The only limitations are the ones you set yourself. I sought help from a psychologist to help me deal with the trauma of the war and was able to move to a new host environment where I felt especially loved and cared for. 

After this change, I was able to adapt and see the U.S. from a different lens aside from what’s seen in the movies. The diversity of the people made me realize that I am not alone, and not all people who share one identity are the same. My exchange year made me realize that I am not just a number. I am a human with aspirations and beliefs despite how many times the world tries to snatch those opportunities. Most importantly, I was forced to be independent and that helped me see more in myself. I discovered a version of myself that I had never before allowed myself to imagine.

Seeking help from a psychologist helped me become aware of the significant link between trauma, life’s adversities, and one’s behavior and cognitive processes. I learned that I can fight and empower others through my education. I realized that I can leave an impact on people’s lives by helping them improve their well-being and face challenges. I decided during my exchange year that this is exactly where my focus is going to be — to practice psychology in my home country.

The YES program left a significant imprint in me, and it opened many doors for me. As I returned home, I was determined to direct my focus on my studies and community. I graduated from high school at the top of my class, which helped me get the Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholarship (funded by the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, MEPI) and I studied at the Lebanese American University. Additionally, I studied abroad for one semester at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I attended the YESDP workshop in Kuwait. My YES experiences changed my outlook on the entire world, including my own country. Presenting to outsiders about the occupation in Gaza made me learn more about and love my country in a new way. The YES experience is one substantial reason behind my achievements and was the main reason behind my choice of studies and future goals.

I am home now after four years of being away studying in Lebanon. As a YES alumna and as a part of the Gazan community, my main goal is to implement more activities to improve individual well-being. I firmly believe in empowerment through education and mental health. I am 22 years old now and my goal is to become a professional psychologist and practice in my home country. Now, my dream is to stay here and help my community as much as I can.

Check out Tala’s YES alumni involvement back home in Gaza here!