It is a great pleasure to speak to you today at this US Congressional Forum. For many years, this venue has hosted debates where numerous individuals have discussed how I should live my life back home. Decisions have been made here that have affected me and continue to affect me.
In the opinion of some in these hallways, Palestinians can’t even decide on the color of their Humus!
This congress, that for many years has been the forum for mostly Israeli leaders to influence politicians and the media, is now hosting ME – a Palestinian, woman from Ramallah, who will today make the attempt to dissolve some of the stereotypes that I believe have been built up over the years! I’m on equal grounds, and I am asking you to be fair in your judgment and walk with me in this path to explore the other face of the Palestinian society.
My name is Mary Sayej. Last year, on another program, I was asked: “If you were an object, what would you be?” I simply said: “A mobile phone!” My mentor paused, and smiled waiting for me to elaborate. “Like me, I said, mobile phones evolve over time, they are multifunctional, they roam and adapt to different cultures and they are diverse in application! I am also 22, the age of mobile phones.”
Palestinian society is evolving. We stopped victimizing ourselves long ago. We are no longer Helpless, Powerless people devoid of capacities! I know you hear about martyrs, death, bombings and tragedies, but we also graduate from schools, get married, have babies and celebrate successes. As the Palestinian poet, Ms. Raffef Zyadeh, says: “We teach LIFE, Sir! We Palestinians, wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world LIFE, sir!”
I was raised in a small town near Ramallah, surrounded by ancient olive trees, Birzeit, which means the oil well. My town has been tied very closely, to the educational revolution in Palestine since 1924. It hosts one of the oldest and most notable higher-education institutions in Palestine- Birzeit University.
Therefore, getting a good education, and perusing higher education are major values in my family. “Being educated is the only weapon you can stand in the face of the world with”; my father always tells me!
Despite the fact that I am living in a socially, politically and economically challenged area, my parents overcame their protective (and sometimes overprotective) nature and gave me every opportunity to grow and further my education. From a very young age, I was encouraged to get involve in different organizations and programs, when I was 17; I was a consoler at a summer camp working with Palestinian youth from different backgrounds. For the first time I met girls who came from families that didn’t share the same commitment to women’s education as my family does. At 17, these girls were expected to get married and start a family. By the end of the summer, I managed to help three girls stand up to their fathers and convince them to choose education and delay marriage. Three girls is a very small number, but that was the moment I realized I can make a difference in my community. And I was determined to continue making a difference, by becoming an independent, confident and active young woman in Ramallah.
I am a big believer in the saying; “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door”. I believe in perusing the hidden opportunity, and helping others to find it. Every person is born with an ability to make a difference; it’s a matter of choice whether you want to act, or stay in the shadows and remain silent! I’ve made my choice, I have always been outspoken and involved, and will never stop being so!
As a Palestinian woman, who has been granted the opportunity to stand here before you; it is my privilege to be part of a long line of Palestinian women who played major roles in our society since the beginning of our conflict with Israel. Women have been leaders in establishing charities, initiating political debates, starting small businesses and sustaining the community at difficult times. Unfortunately, instead of these roles growing, women’s leadership and participation in society is being suffocated by masculine ignorance and arrogance in the name of outdated traditions!
What I am passionate about is to find ways to help more females get education pursue their interests and become more active in building Palestinian society. Palestinian women have so much potential, but they need windows of hope and doors of opportunities to be built around them.
Living in Ramallah, the center of the West Bank, and what many people consider the economic capital of Palestine; I have also come to realize, that I am living in an economy that is very dependent on foreign aid. Last May, I graduated with a degree in Business Economics from Birzeit University. My dissertation elaborated upon the impact of foreign aid on the Palestinian economy. One of the main conclusions I drew was that due to Palestinian dependency on foreign aid, the productivity of Palestinians is decreasing. Therefore, in order to boost Palestinian productivity, Palestine must wean itself off its dependency on foreign aid, so that Palestinians can achieve greater self sufficiency and autonomy in the future. I strongly believe that in order for Palestinians, to be able to attain a truly independent state we must invest more in supporting our entrepreneurs and strengthening our business and economic base, and ensuring that women will be at the center of this investment.
Thank you for listening.
by Mary Sayj