“Growing up as an Arab–American post–9/11 is probably one of the most defining features of my identity. It's a challenge living in a country which is very demonizing of the place of your origin and being from a place that is very demonizing of the place that you're arriving to—America," Omar Khoury (C '19) says. "There's always a sort of animosity between the East and the West, so my life is really just trying to navigate the various divisions.”
Both of Omar’s parents are Palestinian and Christian, which is a minority in Middle Eastern States. His mother was born and raised in Kuwait but moved to Jordan, where Omar was born, after the Gulf Invasion in 1991. When Omar was seven or eight, his family made a major move from Jordan to the United States in a suburb outside of Cincinnati.
At Penn, Omar is majoring in Modern Middle Eastern studies, because he wants to study the events that "impacted [his] family directly.”
Omar already speaks Arabic, which allows him to examine primary sources as well as read Arabic poetry. Omar is also very passionate about English and creative writing. Last semester, he wrote a play with Sayre High School students to be performed by professional actors.
In summer 2017, Omar worked at the human rights department of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Earlier that summer, he traveled to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine through the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project.
“Having the opportunity to wake up every morning, studying what you love—it's a blessing," Omar says. "You just carry yourself through life with a bit more of a beat than people who just tend to study for the sake of getting a job."
When he was in high school, though, Omar says he was "super white–washed."
“I look back and I'm a bit, not really ashamed, but more just like disappointed, at how quickly I fell to uniformity, and that's why I kind of made a promise coming into Penn,” Omar says.
“You're different for a reason,” Omar adds, “Go through life with your differences as your strengths.”
Omar has taken every chance to explore his multitude of interests at Penn. He is a part of the Philomathean Society, which is one of the oldest intellectual societies in America.
“It's essentially a community of really different–minded individuals who share a passion for knowledge and the pursuit of it,” Omar says.
He learns about a "crazy" range of topics from political science and economics to mathematics and quantum physics, “just by virtue of me being in the same space with them.”
“I look forward to going to every meeting and seeing people on Locust Walk, because we’ll have different conversations with each person,” Omar says, “ I can approach a person and remember a conversation we had about the cosmos yesterday and ask, “Did you hear about how NASA landed like a freaking Rover on Mars? That’s crazy!’”
Omar is also the editor–in–chief of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal. He said that learning about the breadth of legal issues through this publication has actually inspired him to go into law.
“Whether it's space policy, whether it's intellectual property, whether it's criminal or corporate law–there's so many things that you can find legality and the law in, and that's why I love it,” he says.
Omar said that as a Palestinian, immigration policy strongly resonates with his "identity, culture and community." Omar hopes to work with international organizations that deal with refugee resettlement policies, asylum granting programs, and immigration policies. However, he ultimately hopes to work in space policy.
Omar has explored his love of the cosmos by working in the Cincinnati Observatory this past summer.
“What an experience, what an experience. I learned so much about the universe. You're in these spaces where telescopes that you use peer into the heart of the cosmos,” Omar says.
“People look at a star that's like however many hundreds of light–years away and realize that star is millions of times bigger than Earth. Any semblance of self–imagined importance that you have is just completely erased when you just look up at the sky,” Omar adds.
Omar was glad he worked this past summer, because Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn were all in the same horizontal plane during those particular months.
“You could see all four planets in the night sky at the same time. It was dope as shit,” Omar exclaims.
Omar remembers always being interested in space as a kid, but he became truly invested in fall 2017. He was studying abroad in the United Kingdom, but he decided to go to Marrakesh, Morocco with a few friends. They took an overnight trip to a town at the edge of the Sahara Desert.
“We went across the Atlas Mountains, and we finally arrived as the sun was touching the horizon. We took a camel ride, and as the sun was dipping past the horizon, hundreds of thousands of stars would show up in the night sky,” Omar says.
“It was probably the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my entire life. At that moment, I realized that there's an unexplored aspect of the world that I need to explore. It's my duty as a lover of knowledge to explore more,” he adds.
During yet another escapade, Omar hiked with his friends at Petra, a massive city carved in sandstone in southern Jordan. They woke up at 5:30 a.m. to be the first ones inside this ancient wonder of the world at 6 a.m. when the gates opened.
“It's just incredibly ornate architecture, and being alone with that was such an experience, because you really get to be pensive and introspective and focus on your roots, both as a person and as a human,” Omar says.
"Just sitting atop the highest mountain and peering into the vastness was really just something that humbled me.” Omar adds, “I seek to be humbled by greater things, whether it's through exploring the cosmos or any sort of history; these things are much more massive than I.”
When he came back to Penn, Omar took an astronomy course, and even tracks the stars on Locust Walk with an app called Star Walk.
“Ask any of my friends—any of my friends, you can take this to the bank—I'll be walking with them, and I'll be like ‘bro listen, listen that right there, that's Mars,’” Omar says.
To Omar, being able to see the stars is “a freaking privilege.” He proclaims to live by the motto, "always look up."
“Every single time there's a clear night, I'll look up at the night sky and identify constellations, planets, stars, or something like that and people are just walking on their phones,” Omar says, “There's nothing wrong with them, but there's this massive world above them, and no one's really paying attention.”
Omar's quest for knowledge has taken him all over Penn's academic departments, around the globe, and across the cosmos of the universe, and he's excited for this lifelong journey to continue.
“Life's what you make it, so let's make it right—in the words of the iconic Hannah Montana," Omar declares. "By the way, she and I share the same birthday: November 23rd."