Majed Abdulsamad, GSAPP '17 is an Associate at WXY architecture, Vice Chair of Landuse & Waterfront at Manhattan Community Board 6, and Co-founder of Syrian Youth Empowerment (SYE Initiative). Through his work, he focuses on city building by working on public housing, transportation planning, and public realm projects in New York City and beyond. His work has also taken him to Brazil, Colombia, India and Ethiopia. He has also served as Assistant Adjunct Professor for Urban Design for Urban Planners at GSAPP.
Our Daniel Harrich sat down with him for an Alumni Spotlight Interview.
Could you share a bit about your background: Where you grew up and any major life events or experiences that were formative for you?
I was born and raised in Damascus, Syria, but a part of my family is originally from Homs. I started university in Damascus when in 2011, due to the Syrian Revolution, I had to leave somewhat in a rush because of security concerns.
As I was leaving, I heard about a scholarship in Chicago at Illinois Tech (IIT) through an NGO called Jusoor. In late 2012 I was able to come to Chicago where I continued my architecture degree and eventually got my bachelor’s in architecture.
Jusoor, meaning “bridges,” is a non-profit started by Syrian expatriates at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, to connect Syrian students with educational opportunities in the United States.
And while I didn't get the scholarship at Illinois Tech, this non-profit passed my architecture portfolio onward, opening the main door I needed at the time.
Can you share a little bit more about your journey to Columbia and the GSAPP program in particular?
The reason I chose Columbia was twofold. On the one hand, I wanted to pursue a degree in urban design with a focus on post-conflict urbanism. This was because of the dream of one day being able to contribute to the effort of rebuilding Syrian cities once the war ends.
On the other hand, the faculty attracted me to the program. GSAPP at the time was led by a Lebanese Dean, Amale Andraos, who is an incredible architect in her own right. Several of the GSAPP faculty were Lebanese or Palestinian, and they were all absolute rock stars. I feel so grateful to have had the chance to study under Ziad Jamaleddine, Nora Akawi, and many others who opened themselves up and gave advice that felt relevant because they understood my geographical context and the issues I felt passionate about trying to solve.
Looking back on it now, I never thought I would end up at a place like Columbia, and yet somehow here we are. The day that I received my letter of admission is one of those days which I’ll never forget.
What have you been up to since you graduated from Columbia?
I started off my career interning in New York City, working eventually for an organization under the Bloomberg Philanthropies umbrella.
My role continued to evolve around working with city governments on urban design and transportation planning projects. And my professional career so far has allowed me to travel extensively, working in Brazil and in Colombia for a little bit, and then also in India and Ethiopia for a total of 4 years across the four countries.
Just last year I moved to the private sector for a company called WXY where I'm still working with city governments on a mix of affordable housing projects and public urban design and planning projects. I actually work with the city on NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) projects, and those are the public housing projects that you see all around the city. Those projects house 500,000 people – for comparison, the entire population of Miami and then some lives in affordable housing in New York
Occasionally we also work on projects to add more housing when possible, so overall the job is really enriching as an experience. Even more so because it often involves site visits where we get to talk to people, many of whom are born and raised New Yorkers that have called this city home for more than 70 years. And it is through those conversations that I have begun to feel increasingly part of the city and less of an immigrant.
Thinking back to some of the faculty, do any of them stand out as mentors for you?
The list is too long to count. Ziad Jamaleddine made me feel like an equal. He would come into our conversations with as much curiosity for my ideas as I had myself. He allowed me to clearly articulate what it is that I want to accomplish and to contextualize that ambition properly. I remember coming into GSAPP with big ambitions and a desire to do big things, and other students might have had niche knowledge or talents that they wanted to deploy as well.
The second person I would like to mention is Dean Andraos, who actually sat on my design reviews for my studio (which is very uncommon). But that gave me the chance to interact with her on a more personal level and to get very helpful feedback about my project on Palestinian refugee settlements in Jordan.
What was your favorite class from your time at Columbia?
I loved all my studios, I was also able to sign up for classes outside of GSAPP, including a SIPA conflict resolution class. That classed served to broaden my aperture and the lens with which I viewed the work that I was doing in my studios. I had initially expected to be the only person from a war zone, but in this particular class I found myself surrounded by people from Colombia, Yemen, who spoke eloquently about their own conflict experiences in a way that supplemented, and at times even challenged, my own.
While not directly linked to my practice, those conversations genuinely began to inform the way that I approached my own architecture and creating a narrative of post-conflict resolution that draws in various stakeholders.
What advice would you give your younger self at Columbia?
Be less attached to the curriculum, the GPA, and this idea of having to be on top of every single deadline all the time. Instead, I would use some of that freed up time to invest more into meeting folks and hearing from the people around me.
One thing I realized very quickly is that everyone at Columbia is as ambitious as I am, and probably a lot more knowledgable than I was. So, there is immense value in hearing about their stories, their backgrounds, and what it is that they are trying to accomplish.
Ever since I graduated, I’ve grown to realize that being at Columbia presents a unique opportunity to meet folks from backgrounds that are harder to come by as easily and as frequently later in life. So, if I had to give either a younger version of myself or a current student at Columbia any advice, it would be to just say as many hellos as is humanely possible!
How do you keep those relationships that you made at Columbia stand the test of time?
In the case of professors like Ziad Jamaleddine, I follow up with them via email – ultimately it does come down to a personal effort and being proactive about reaching out to say something like, “Here's what I've been up to, here's my new job that I got hired for, or I recently changed jobs…” I certainly also follow their work closely, both out of a desire to stay in touch but also a genuine personal curiosity and I try to reach out whenever I read something interesting that could also be relevant to them.
This has been easier for me because I work in a field related to what my GSAPP professors taught, and also because I was invited back to teach Urban Design for Urban Planners at GSAPP for the past two summers as Assistant Adjunct Professor.
It’s not always easy to keep in contact, but it's so worth the effort when you do.
You mentioned that there was a point in time where your goal was to go back to Syria for work. Do you see any of your current projects as building blocks to one day making that possible?
Throughout my first 2-3 years in the U.S., I was convinced that I would eventually go back to Syria. Eventually I made peace with the fact that I’d be in the U.S. longer than 2-3 years, and once I admitted that to myself, I did all I can to speed up the process of settling in.
I think of life as a non-linear process and that has allowed me to appreciate my current endeavors more; the more experience and exposure I have, the better of an architect and planner I can become, and then the more useful I may be in the future in any country and in any capacity.
I currently spend my time working with city governments anywhere from New York, Rochester, and even Dallas on urban design projects - be it on public developments, new housing, new parks, or even redeveloping existing downtown areas.
Eventually, I will be able to transfer that understanding of how a city works wherever life takes me in the future. What I am learning in the context of different cities in the US is going to be applicable wherever I go, be it in Syria, Lebanon, France – it doesn't matter. Thinking to Syria, there are major differences: the aspect of conflict really complicates things, and as does the absence of government in parts of the country.
Could you firstly tell me more about how the SYE started and also where it is today?
We started SYE as an initiative that all of us had acquired this knowledge about the educational system in the U.S., and we now wanted to find an avenue that would allow us to effectively communicate this knowledge to folks back home who were still very far from the U.S.. I still remember the night where it was just four of us, speaking and bonding over hookah, feeling compelled to do something that could connect us to Syria.
We went from four to nine volunteers working out of personal conviction to now being a registered nonprofit in New York State with over 100 volunteers. We even have two full time staffers that help manage what has become a really big grassroots operation.
We have worked with over 500 students, and we were able to help students receive over $22 million dollars’ worth of scholarships – which is an accomplishment we’re incredibly proud of, especially knowing how little our budget is.
What have you been able to accomplish with SYE and how might others get involved?
Admittedly the scope of SYE was initially focused on Syrian students, but we have since expanded to focus also on Palestinian and Iraqi students. We’ve developed a curriculum that can walk our volunteers through the main challenges faced by Arab students coming to the U.S. for the first time, and it provides context-specific guidance on how our volunteers can help a student from an Arab background apply to American universities in a way that makes them competitive throughout the process.
Anybody who is willing to invest 2-3 hours a week for 6 months of the year could eventually be in the incredibly fulfilling position of receiving an email from their mentee saying, “I’ve received an offer of admission from the University of Wisconsin!” or, “I have full ride to the University of Chicago!” – we recently even had our first admission to Columbia, and that was huge.
What do you hope CAAA could offer both current and future alumni?
What we can always do, and what we should be doing whenever we have the chance, is extending our networks and our knowledge to those back home to give them the line of support that we had wished for when we were still back there. Reflecting on when I was trying to make the transition myself, I would have given so much to have known somebody who went to Columbia when I still back in Syria. Again, had you said the words “Columbia” I would have thought about the country, not the university. So, simply expanding the range of what people back home think is possible for them to achieve is already a huge accomplishment.
Simply being the person that tells people, “listen, there's actually a university called ‘Columbia,’ and I can tell you what they teach and what they're asking for in their applications process” is an incredible thing to do.