This year has been an embarrassment of riches. First, with the publication of my book, I revealed to the world my darkest, most painful secret, and then I was asked to be an advocate and supporter for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Humbled and honored, I’d like to say a few words about one very sensitive word: refugee. No use of the P word here: Politics; rather, I’d like to suggest two different words: Being and Becoming.
Being in Mar Elias, I knew what it was to be displaced. Through UNRWA’s programs, I became an educated woman. Life in the camp was not always easy. Like most children, I didn’t think about my circumstances. Being in the moment. As a woman, as a mother, I realize young people need consistency and structure. UNRWA provided that. There were few luxuries, but there was a meeting place, a tent, where we had our classes. There were textbooks, notebooks, pencils, and paper. Simple things but, in hindsight, invaluable. There were teachers and volunteers. In a small place, in the sanctuary that was Mar Elias, we were children.
And as with any education, there are exams, except for us children; the test was often when we went outside of the camp, the world beyond the fence. Like any student, I had my strengths and I had my weaknesses; and, like any young person, I had to define the person I wanted to become. Being is the present and Becoming is the future.
All of us are the sum of our experiences, each with a unique disposition, which is why education is so important, a matter of trust. While parents are responsible for basic needs, the moral and spiritual lives of their children, we entrust teachers to shape the analytical and critical skills of our children’s so they can solve problems, so they can become self-reliant. Imagine now that as a parent and refugee, you can’t provide for your children. What I am describing is an on-going process, an evolution that requires and depends on continuity because it is vulnerable. If context is everything, then you can imagine how precious and precarious education in a refugee camp becomes. If the books disappeared, if the tent vanished, and there were no lessons, then what? Lives and futures are jeopardized. People are written off. Hope is snuffed out.
Refugee is a word I inherited as my identity. It’s a word loaded with negative connotations. Dirty. Unwanted. Suspect. I was a living adjective, a stereotype. Refugee is a word that would haunt me long after I left Mar Elias. Now add the word woman, add all the insecurities I inherited in this world. There are expectations about how we should look and act. There are demands on our bodies, our integrity, and our character. I think back to my times at the blackboard, of my persistence as I stood before it. I reasoned through it; tried and failed and erased the answer and tried again. Like most women, I had to figure out self-confidence, sort out my self-esteem, and fix both. I had help. I experienced the kindness and generosity of others. Teachers, parents as role models, friends, and family. It wasn’t easy, but I’m grateful.
I make my way in this world helping others discover the beauty within. I once felt ugly and ashamed because I was a refugee. It’s irrational, I know. I tell women that if I can make it, so can they. I tell them they are enough.
However, as I look back at the past, I realize how much could have gone wrong. A blackboard, pad and pencil humble me. Simple objects. A notebook and writing materials equal the cost of a latte. And I realize what is at stake. Without a roof over my head, food in my belly and most importantly, the best education in all the camps, I could have been stuck in an eternal present of hopelessness, with no growth, no chance at Becoming. I’m grateful to UNRWA for providing me those not so simple things.
Truth. Nobody wants to live in a refugee camp. Nobody. Unfortunately, they are a reality. Basic, fundamental programs require funding to exist; require it for those programs to be made available to people in the camps today and every day. As an advocate and representative for Dignity Is Priceless, it is my duty to teach and educate people about the reality of what it is to be a refugee, a woman twice displaced in the world. Food and shelter are basic rights, but access to an education is also a right because without it, we have no culture and no membership in the human family.