I visited New York for the first time this past April. I had recently graduated from Santa Clara University and I found myself terrified of the future. Seemingly endless possibilities, in combination with the breadth of free time afforded by finishing my degree an academic quarter early, left me paralyzed with indecision. So I decided to extend a trip to New Jersey for a wedding into a New York excursion—in part to escape reality for a little longer. Little did I know that this “escape” in New York would provide me with a positive path forward.

I was staying with a friend at Columbia and I don’t even think RJ was aware that I was in New York. I sent RJ a message asking if he wanted to grab dinner and happened to catch him on the only night of the week he was (somewhat) free. I had been loosely following this project called LEAD Palestine that RJ had been working on for the better part of two years and pressed him about it over dinner. As he described the mission of LEAD Palestine, the passion in his voice was palpable and I could feel myself becoming excited and inspired. I thought, “now THIS is work I would love to be a part of. THIS is what I want to do this summer.” RJ must have read my mind because the next words out of his mouth were “come, join us. We could use your help.” I booked my ticket the following week.

There is a tendency in American pop-culture to view the poor of developing countries with a lens of pity. This is especially true for refugees. We see commercials featuring images of malnourished children with sad music playing in the background. The narrator speaks in a somber tone, urging the viewer to take action in the form of a monetary donation to “save” the subjects of these advertisements. This savior complex is incredibly damaging and insulting. It establishes a hierarchy amongst global individuals on the basis of their possessions. Worst of all, this view implies that those in poorer countries are helpless or lack dignity. This complex is something we’ve been actively avoiding with our program. LEAD Palestine isn’t making our participants leaders. Rather, our program is fostering some of the leadership traits that many of our participants already possess.

I’ve already been marveled by the strength of the residents of New Askar. This is a vibrant community with a love of life that shines through the oppressive realities of occupation, chief among them a severe restriction on freedom of movement. Palestinian citizens are barred from a large portion of the West Bank and movement within the remaining portions are inhibited by military checkpoints. Entry into the city of Jerusalem, along with the entire state of Israel, is also forbidden without special permission.

For me, this is a foreign and frustrating concept due to the immense privilege afforded to me by my possession of an American passport, which the state of Israel does not recognize by virtue of my Palestinian citizenship. This is a reality faced by the near 2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, the majority of whom lacking the privilege of dual-nationality. And man, it really gets to me. Jerusalem, 10 miles south of Ramallah, feels further away than San Francisco. I can’t help but become incredibly grumpy, irritated, and resentful (sorry Hannah and RJ) when I am faced with these realities. I also feel ashamed for feeling so frustrated during my temporary stay while occupation is persistent and inescapable for so many—including the residents of New Askar.  

My inability to handle the reality of occupation serves in stark contrast to the strength of New Askar’s residents and their defiance to occupation by protruding such fierce love and generosity in the face of oppression. It is a sobering experience and a powerful reminder that individuals have the power to influence their own situations despite external pressures. It continues to be a blessing to work with such amazing individuals in New Askar, including the Center for Social Development, and all those associated with LEAD Palestine. I am thankful everyday for the opportunity to be a part of this program and I can’t wait for August 13 to come around.

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