Meet Maya Ghazal, the first ever female Syrian refugee pilot

Born and raised in Damascus, Syria, 24-year-old Maya Ghazal took her first introductory flight lesson at Wycombe Air Park (EGTB) in Booker, Buckinghamshire, which is also known as Booker Airfield, in 2018.

She hated it. However, Ghazal still went on to become an ambassador for the aviation industry.

In an interview with AeroTime, hosted by Captain Chris Pohl, also known as Captain Chris, a pilot and instructor on Airbus A330 and A350 aircraft (and an AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award recipient), Ghazal shared the inspirational story of how she overcame obstacles and opposition to become the world’s first female Syrian refugee pilot.

Captain Chris presented Ghazal with an AeroTime Aviation Champion award for her work in aviation and for being a role model and ambassador for the industry.

Ghazal was appointed goodwill ambassador for The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in March 2021, and is currently a graduate research engineer at The Manufacturing Technology Centre, a UK-based research, innovation and manufacturing company.

Speaking about her first experience with aviation, Ghazal shared that she did not come from an aviation background.

“[It] was not even something that I ever thought about,” she said. “But it was there in front of me and that’s when I was just like, ‘Wow! This is amazing. I want to control those’.”

Becoming a pilot

In 2015, at the age of 16, Ghazal moved from her home in Syria to the United Kingdom. Despite her young age, Ghazal claimed that she was eager to start her life again.

In 2017, during a time when she was deciding what career path she would pursue, Ghazal caught the flying bug while sitting with her mother in a hotel located near London-Heathrow Airport.

“I could see the runway. I could see planes taking off and landing,” she said, adding that she was “absolutely fascinated by that”.

She continued: “Those big machines and the whole air traffic control behind it and how it was so precise. Every five minutes, there was a touchdown and I found that really cool.”

Ghazal was inspired to work within an airport environment and air traffic control (ATC) and went on to apply to study aviation engineering. But a year into her studies she decided to become a pilot instead.

She graduated from Brunel University London with a degree in aviation engineering with pilot studies, before obtaining her Private Pilot’s License (PPL) in 2020.

Clearing her runway of obstacles

When Ghazal arrived in the UK with her family, she could not speak English. Continuing to adjust to the language while she was pursuing her pilot career, Ghazal felt overwhelmed during her first introductory flight at Booker Airfield, where she faced difficulty listening to ATC and her instructor.

“I felt very overwhelmed by this whole concept of not understanding what either of them were saying to me,” she explained. “And yet I had to fly a plane. So that’s why I really hated my first lesson. I just did not like it.”

However, she overcame her dislike a few lessons later after falling in love with learning how to land a plane, how to control a plane and understand its instruments.

Be stubborn and persevere

Ghazal was met with opposition from some of the people around her who doubted her ability and the likelihood that she would succeed as a pilot because of her gender and background.

She recalled being told that because she was from Syria, and because she was a woman, that it was unlikely that she would find employment in a high security industry such as aviation.

“That annoyed me,” Ghazal said, but added that she resolved to prove her critics wrong by focusing not only on her career but on the impact of her actions.

She said: “I figured that not only am I doing this for myself, but I’m doing this for the wider community of people. For women who are a minority in the aviation industry. For people who think that they don’t belong. For people who think [they are] not good enough. For young people who want to dream, but then they’re told that dreaming is too big for them.”

“Whoever you are, you can be part of aviation”

So, does Ghazal have a message or any words of advice for the women and young people considering a career in aviation?

“I read a quote recently that said, ‘don’t die with your gifts still inside of you,’” Ghazal said. “I feel like that is something that I want everyone to listen to and actually take in. Because we know ourselves, we know what we’re good at, we know what we can actually bring to this world. So don’t let it go to waste.

“What is it that you have? What is the gift that is inside you that is going to amaze all of the people around you, because people want to see you. We are in this time where people are eager to learn and to have more knowledge and to exchange, so it’s the perfect time and you can do it easily.”

She continued: “You can go on Instagram, and you can stand up and speak to people. There are so many ways to share your passion. And I feel for aviation especially it’s a very good passion to have. But it’s also good for the wider community to know that whoever you are, you can be part of aviation.”

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