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Maryam Zohny on Palestine, Activism, and Solidarity

[Image of Maryam Zohny. Image provided by author. [Image of Maryam Zohny. Image provided by author.

[This post is part of an ongoing Profile of a Contemporary Conduit series on Jadaliyya that seeks to highlight distinct voices primarily in and from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.] 

Jadaliyya (J): Can you describe the aims, goals, and operations of the LEAP Program to us?

Maryam Zohny (MZ): Learning for the Empowerment and Advancement of Palestinians (LEAP) is a grassroots program that was established in 2010 with the aim of empowering Palestinian refugee youth in Lebanon through education. Education is a liberating tool. Through nurturing students’ intellectual and creative growth and providing them with a productive space to learn, we hope to re-inspire students’ thirst for knowledge and encourage them to continue their education, so they may become agents of change in their communities. LEAP is operated as a labor of love with a commitment to the right to education for all children and the recognition of refugee rights.  We are strictly a volunteer-run program with no paid staff or administrators.

We began as only a summer project in 2010 with seven volunteers in one camp and one hundred fifty students. Since then, we have grown exponentially due to the community’s request to increase and expand our projects. After only three years, LEAP has expanded to five refugee camps and worked with over one hundred fifty volunteers and one thousand eight hundred students. Furthermore, additional components have been added to our projects, such as teacher training and a community project.  Moreover, LEAP began with one project and is now operating three projects.

LEAP is centered on English proficiency because the national Brevet examination required for promotion to high school is administered in English. Unfortunately, due to lack of proficiency in English, the majority of Palestinian refugee students fail this exam, tragically and abruptly discontinuing their educational career. Failure to pass the national Brevet exam also prevents students from exploring vocational opportunities, as many vocational centers require a Brevet certificate. For Palestinians in Lebanon, this is crippling, considering that they are already prohibited from working in over seventy professions.  Vocational training has been proven to significantly increase their access to employment opportunities. LEAP hopes to improve students’ English proficiency so that they may continue their education and gain access to greater opportunities and resources. Moreover, LEAP offers students a space to engage in fun and cooperative learning exercises and activities, so as to re-inspire students to seek knowledge and creatively think their way through life in spite of the many limitations they are faced with in Lebanon.

J: You were also the program director of Columbia's Center for Palestine Studies. What does the center do?

MZ: The Center for Palestine Studies (CPS) is the first and only such academic center of its kind at an American university. The Center promotes the academic study of Palestine by supporting research, teaching and intellectual collaboration among scholars within Columbia University and beyond. A principle mandate of the Center is to promote scholarship and facilitate exchanges with scholars, students, and academic institutions in the West Bank and Gaza, and among refugees and others in the Palestinian diaspora.

The creation of CPS honors the scholarly legacy of Professor Edward Said at the university, where he taught for forty years. Through his extensive writings, Said developed a critical dialogue about Palestine in the United States from his academic base at Columbia. This year marks the tenth anniversary of his passing, in which CPS and Columbia University are organizing a series of events to reflect on his legacy.

The Center organizes numerous programming activities on various topics. A few of our most central themes have been archives, Palestine and law, the Nakba, and refugees, with special attention paid to film and the arts.

J: What inspires you to continue engaging in activism when it is not always clear if change is being made, or when the end does not seem near?

MZ: Without labels, such as activist or activism, I consider the work I do to be guided by two factors: one being a strong conviction in social justice, and the second, in line with the first, is a responsibility (wajib) in ensuring I am doing what I can to achieve the former, whether it is related to domestic issues or international issues. I see the world as a collective community and believe we should each do our part to empower marginalized communities and work towards equality. Historical circumstances and occurrences led me to a place with greater opportunities, in which I have access to significantly more privileges than many of my brothers and sisters. There is no end to advocating for social justice, since unfortunately, a myriad of issues continue to exist all of which deserve our time and focus. But Palestine, for me, is central.

My inspiration is rooted in my childhood. Attending most of my adolescent schooling in Spanish Harlem, racial and social inequalities were evident to me at a young age. Walking between districts, it was apparent to me, even at the age of thirteen, that systemic and inherently racist structures kept certain populations oppressed, particularly Black and Latino communities in the US, with the targeting of the Arab and Muslim communities taking place more recently. Thus, my inspiration at an early age came from groups like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers who worked to serve, protect, and empower their communities.

I remember learning about Bobby Hutton at age sixteen. At the same age, Hutton had joined the Panther party as its youngest member. Shortly after, he was killed in an exchange with police officers, having been shot multiple times. Hutton’s story has stayed with me ever since. His commitment to improving his community at such a young age, based on the conviction that it is the only right thing to do, as opposed to what is popular, convenient, or self-serving, is admirable. He was a role model to me at that age.

Over the years, I continued to gain inspiration from those remaining steadfast to in spite of the most heinous conditions and treatment, such as Palestinian hunger strikers; our students/friends/colleagues in the refugee camps of Lebanon who continue to push forward for a better life despite the grim opportunities available to them; and mothers and fathers around the world who wake up every morning and work long hours in humiliating and degrading conditions to feed their children and provide shelter for their families. It is in these struggles that one also finds the beauty of the human spirit and strong character, which is inspirational.  

History reassures me that change is possible. We know from history that rights are never granted and reforms never made without pressure and advocacy. Therefore, action is our main hope for change; anything less will only guarantee the status quo.

J: What resources do activists in your community have that you believe are particularly valuable? What resources do they lack?

MZ: Now more than ever, activists in the United States have an array of resources that were unavailable even five years ago. For example, now there is a Palestine legal support initiative whereby lawyers offer free consultation and guidance. There is now also a national network of Palestine student groups working on a third national conference under the National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) network. In addition, there is increased access to alternative news sources such as the Electronic Intifada, Jadaliyya, Mondoweiss, and the Palestine Chronicle, among many others, which offer the Palestine narrative and make on-the-ground news more accessible. Furthermore, digital networks have made it easier to form transnational advocacy networks and to connect with people around the world, which has been a crucial tool. These networks have allowed for Palestinians on the ground and in the diaspora to articulate and share their own stories directly, be it  via Facebook, Twitter, Youtube or other social media outlets.

J: To what extent do you think it is necessary to build solidarity outside of your country and the community of activists in your area of focus?

MZ: Building networks and connections with Palestinians on the ground is crucial for the Palestine solidarity movement. It is important for Palestinians to determine their own path and struggle to self determination. For activists to be in solidarity, they should help support the campaigns and strategies Palestinians are calling for and help amplify their efforts.

Palestinians are fragmented in their nationhood and collective identity and it has been difficult to reconvene a national dialogue due to a dispersed diaspora. Thus, transnational networks allow for Palestinians, and those in solidarity, to engage in such discussions to strengthen the movement.

J: How have political transformations happening in the region affected your work?

MZ: The political climate in the Middle East since the Arab revolts has greatly impacted our work on the ground in Lebanon. For example, since the uprising in Syria, we have been unable to expand our work to Northern Lebanon, despite the need and request, due to high security risk. Thus, we have remained concentrated in Beirut and Tyre. However, the security situation this summer escalated and clashes spilled to other parts of Lebanon, compelling LEAP to cancel its projects in three of the five camps we were expected to operate in. As a result, we were forced to cancel our projects for over six hundred of our students and one hundred fifty of our teachers.

Furthermore, due to the large influx of refugees from Syria, our student population has significantly changed over the past couple of years. Before, LEAP’s student demographic consisted of primarily Palestinian refugees from Lebanon. However, since the uprising in Syria, a larger number of our student population is now Syrian or Palestinian refugees from Syria. This necessitated that we rearrange our curriculum owing to different education levels and systems between Syria and Lebanon, and better train our volunteers on how to deal with students who have recently experienced trauma and devastating circumstances since their exile from Syria.

The difficulty of operating in a volatile and dynamic country like Lebanon is that we never know whether or not we will be able to implement our projects. We hope for the best and continue to plan, but it may all be in vain if the security situation forces us to suspend a project. Over the last four years we have had to carefully monitor the security situation and measure the risk of implementing our projects. However, this is a daily reality for the people of Lebanon. We have learned that the only way to move forward is to continue to build and attempt to make a varied future possible. 

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