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Beyond Harvard senior Abdullah Bannan’s lightweight crew career exists an awe-inspiring story: one that demonstrates his resilience and strong desire to help others.
Growing up in Aleppo, Syria, Bannan’s childhood was altered by his country’s Civil War. Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, was the center of a major military conflict between the government and numerous Sunni opposition rebel groups. The conflict began when Bannan was entering seventh grade, and he recalled hearing about “people protesting and children being kidnapped by the government.” Citizens were drafted by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to join the Syrian Armed Forces and its numerous allies, but many soon defected and joined the Free Syrian Army, a breakaway branch of the army that was formed in 2011 with the intention of overthrowing Assad.
The seventh grader’s world changed when fighting broke out in Aleppo on July 19, 2012. Bannan’s father, in hopes of preventing the government from completely taking over, was determined to remain in the city. But, the bombings destroyed Bannan’s home, and he was forced to evacuate.
“I think it’s ridiculous for me to talk about it in the past like it’s over,” Bannan wrote in an email. “I don’t know if it’s the age by which I experienced it, or the duration of that experience, but it remains a huge part of who I am and it is something that comes up in my mind at least 5 times a day.”
Despite the difficulties he and his family faced, Bannan found inspiration in a Class Day address delivered by Sarah Abushaar ’14, titled “The Harvard Spring.”
“I knew nothing at that point, but I just knew that I wanted to do my absolute best to change whatever was in my power to change,” Bannan wrote. “However, as the years passed, it was obvious that anything I would want to do would be limited under the political climate, so I wanted an education that would allow me the chance to make real change.”
Bannan pursued biology, which he first became interested in while attending the Al-Bassel High School for Outstanding Students, a government-run institution for gifted students, founded by the Syrian Ministry of Education in 1998.
“I first got into biology and chemistry when I participated in the National Biology Olympiad in high school and got to experience concepts on a deeper level through classes at the local university,” he wrote. “[I] then ended up competing and winning in the International Biology Olympiad which really showed me how passion can go a long way even under difficult circumstances.”
Following in Abushaar’s footsteps, Bannan went on to study Chemical and Physical Biology at Harvard. However, the journey to get to Cambridge was difficult.
“We couldn’t pay for the standardized tests ourselves from within Syria due to economic sanctions,” he explained. “There were basically no resources, and we all do high school in Arabic.”
During his application process, Bannan heard about the Syrian Youth Empowerment Initiative through one of his friends. Founded in 2015 by George Batah and Majed Abdulsamad, SYE is a program that pays for standardized test fees, provides resources for preparation, and pairs Syrian high school students with mentors that guide them through the college application process. Today, Bannan serves as an active mentor for the organization.
It wasn’t until he arrived at Harvard that Bannan pursued his lifelong interest in rowing, which he had never tried in Syria.
“I grew up watching the Olympics with my family, and we would always watch gymnastics, swimming, and rowing,” Bannan wrote. “I was always fascinated by the sport being the right combination of strength and cardio.”
Halfway through his sophomore year, Bannan reached out to Harvard’s rowing coaches to ask if he could walk onto the team. However, owing to his relative inexperience in the sport, he had multiple intensive one-on-one sessions with the lightweight coaches to keep him up to speed with the rest of the squad.
“Abdullah’s story is unlike any other,” said his teammate, sophomore Brahm Erdmann. “He’s certainly taken the path less traveled to become a Harvard rower — which, ironically, makes him a typical member of our team: he took an opportunity and ran. That’s what Harvard varsity lightweight crew is all about.”
Despite his late start, Bannan has had many impressive accomplishments in his rowing career, one of which came during a race against Navy in the Haines Cup, which took place on the Severn River in Annapolis, Md. on Apr. 23, 2021.
In this race, Bannan was “stroking” the boat, which meant he had to sit closest to the stern of the boat and set the stroke rate and rhythm for the crew to follow. The stroker plays a critical role during the race, as this rate can determine whether a boat wins or loses a race.
Bannan recalled that, during the race, he was nervous.
“I was in a very disparate state as we stopped seeing the other two Navy boat[s],” he wrote. “But then one of my teammates called out my name from the back, which kind of snapped me back to reality and reminded me of the seven other rowers behind me, all having my back, all putting in their best work to move the boat.”
The team ended up finishing second by 11.3 seconds, tying with Navy’s fifth varsity squad in 6:41.3.
“It was the support of being surrounded by 30 other teammates cheering for you, while everyone was pushing themselves to the absolute limits of their heart rates and lung capacity,” Bannan noted of the race.
Another challenge Bannan overcame in his rowing career was his 2K test. Similar to the mile running test, the 2K rowing test assesses rowers’ endurance, output, and resilience. However, a week before his scheduled 2K, Bannan contracted Covid-19, so he could not train with the rest of the team.
“This really stressed me out, because we had been building up fitness over the weeks leading to the test and the coaches had put together very precise plans for each of us to perform well on this test,” he wrote.
However, determined to stay on track, he cycled in the basement of Dunster House with his mask on, managing to achieve a personal record.
—Staff writer Derek Hu can be reached at email@example.com.
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