‘I’m a war survivor on a mission.’ UK grad who fled Syria earns Master of Social Work

For Madona Elias, completion of her Masters is not just the next step of her academic journey, it is the completion of twelve years of rebuilding her life and career.

Share news:

This article was originally published on UKNOW.


LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 14, 2023) — A photo captures an instantaneous moment in time — allowing us to preserve a memory.

Yet, oddly, the meaning of a photograph is never fixed. Its significance has the ability to change over time.

A 4×6 frame holds a celebratory photo of Madona Elias, her mom and fellow graduates. 

Elias is dressed in a black cap and gown. A golden tassel, signifying the commemorative closing of one chapter and the beginning of another, falls in front of her face — where Elias is also wearing a proud smile.

It’s 2004 and she has just graduated from the University of Aleppo in Syria.

It’s a feeling of accomplishment unlike any other — walking across the commencement stage, outstretched hand reaching for that coveted diploma.

“Never did I imagine I would have to do this again nearly 20 years later,” Elias said.


After receiving a degree in clinical mental health, Elias established herself as a mental health specialist and researcher in the global health community — serving several refugee populations (Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian) worldwide.

As a student who often excelled, she continued to chase her desire to be a catalyst for change through education.

In 2010, Elias completed a fellowship in medical anthropology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and was nominated three years in a row by the European Union as a key focal researcher from Syria in the RESCAP-MED project.

“The main purpose of the project was to build sustainable research capacity for public health and its social determinants in low- and middle-income countries in the Mediterranean region,” she explained.

With nearly two decades of experience in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, Elias implemented and oversaw complex research studies and evaluation projects with the World Health Organization (WHO), Catholic Relief Services (Caritas-Jordan) and the European Union.

On top of a successful career, Elias was nearing the completion of her doctorate and felt as if her future was falling into place.

“My life was much like anyone else’s,” she said. “I had a career, a family and a home.”


In the backdrop, unrest was spreading across the Arab world.

When the Syrian war broke out in 2011, the only home Elias had ever known was no longer safe.

“I was forced to flee my beloved country.”

Elias’ international work status allowed her to seek refuge in the U.S. with her 6-year-old daughter. But many family members were left behind. “Even though I escaped the violence, part of my heart remains there,” she said.

Elias was forced to start a new life in a new country — where she would ultimately face language barriers, cultural differences and difficulties finding work.

While Elias’ education and career were not top of mind, she asked herself, “what’s next?”

That’s when a deep uncertainty began to settle in.

“English was my third language. And much of my education was not recognized in the U.S.,” Elias said. “I had to spend the next 10 years rebuilding my life from the ground up. And I had to start my career and education again from scratch.”


Pain has a way of inspiring purpose.

Elias remained resilient — determined to rebuild a bright, hopeful future for herself and her daughter.

That’s when, in 2016, she began working at UK HealthCare’s Psychiatric and Behavioral Health Care Clinic in the College of Medicine at the University of Kentucky.

“I loved the charming campus and learned how highly ranked UK’s graduate programs in health care are nationwide,” she said. “While I was working, I enrolled in graduate school to earn a certificate in global health.”

Elias continued working full time to support her family, while earning exemplary grades. In 2019, she graduated with a certificate in global health with a focus on mental health.

But that wasn’t the end of her educational story or her journey at UK.

In 2021, Elias was accepted into the online Master of Social Work (MSW) program in the College of Social Work (CoSW).

In the years that followed, she pursued the ultimate balancing act — applying herself in the classroom, in the community and at home.

“When choosing to complete my MSW as a single mom, while working two full-time jobs, the college offered me a flexible online program with a high quality of education and mentorship support that encouraged me to follow my dream,” Elias continued. “UK also has a wide array of programs that have allowed me to excel in multidisciplinary studies and foster an environment of cooperative engagement across all colleges, programs and research endeavors.”

The rigorous MSW includes options for an advanced program (30 credits) and a regular program (60 credits) to give experienced social workers and/or passionate newcomers the practical skills needed to be effective in the field.

The program is open to all undergraduate degrees and may be completed full time or part time, in either a hybrid or online format. MSW students also have the option to earn specialized certificates in clinical social work, child welfare, military behavioral health, rural population well-being, integrative behavioral health and substance use disorder, among others.

The MSW graduates have the highest clinical licensing pass rates in Kentucky and routinely score above the national average — making those who complete the program uniquely poised to enter a competitive job market. And in so doing, students will positively impact the lives of individuals, groups and communities around the world.

Through the CoSW, finally, Elias found a second home — and a second family.

“It’s been an arduous, lengthy, challenging journey. But I managed to reinvent myself and establish roots again here in Kentucky,” she continued. “My mentors, Kalea Benner, Katherine Crabtree and Peter Polatin, believed in me when I lost faith in myself.”


What makes a photo powerful?

On a sunny December afternoon, Elias finds herself back in front of the camera, beaming with pride as she poses in a graduation gown — only this time it is blue, and her daughter, now 18, is standing by her side.

It’s been 20 years since Elias’ first graduation. Now, both photos serve as a symbol — reminding her she discovered new happiness not despite challenges, but because of them.

“I worked tirelessly, regardless of my scars of war PTSD and survivor’s guilt, to become whole again as a refugee.”

Elias is aware she is one among many who are forcibly displaced because of conflict, war or natural disaster.

Through her initiative, “Global Mental Health Intervention Program During Crises and Wartime,” she hopes to not only help others like her but affect policy change surrounding mental health services for refugees.

As Elias crosses the Commencement stage — for the second time — she hopes her story of resilience encourages others to embrace the best from the worst and keep moving forward.

“Life is hard and challenging. But I am a war survivor, and now I can see why I’m still here,” she said. “Unfortunately, war is beyond our control. But refugees should have a better future and need help healing. I still have a mission to help people overcome their PTSD and find a way to live with their scars.”

You can hear more of Elias’ story by clicking the play button above.

“Behind the Blue” is also available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify. Become a subscriber to receive new episodes of “Behind the Blue” each week. UK’s latest medical breakthroughs, research, artists and writers will be featured, along with the most important news impacting the university.

For questions or comments about this or any other episode of “Behind the Blue,” email BehindTheBlue@uky.edu or tweet your question with #BehindTheBlue. Transcripts for this or other episodes of “Behind the Blue” can be downloaded from the show’s blog page.

UK’s December 2023 Commencement Ceremonies will take place at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15, at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. They will also be livestreamed on YouTube. Visit commencement.uky.edu or UKNow Friday to watch and learn more.


As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It’s all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.  

For 85 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has been a leader in social work education. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Like the University, CoSW is an organization that cultivates a diverse academic community characterized by interpersonal fairness and social justice. We are fiercely committed to developing outstanding social work professionals — leaders who will serve individuals, families, and communities through innovative and effective practices that are guided by cultural competency, systematic ethical analysis, and a keen and pragmatic understanding of the human condition.  

‘I’m a war survivor on a mission.’ UK grad who fled Syria earns Master of Social Work