Nehad Fattah recently joined Healing Across the Divides as the West Bank Representative. In this interview we talk to her about life as a Palestinian-American in the West Bank, her views on the region, and why she supports sustainable initiatives for Palestinian health.
HD: You have quite an interesting background—tell us about it.
I was born in Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, to Palestinian parents. I lived there until I was two years old. We then moved to the United States and settled in San Francisco, California. I have three sisters and one brother. I was educated in the US. I received both a BS and Master’s degree in counseling psychology from San Francisco State University. After graduation I came for a visit to Palestine for the first time and that’s when I met my husband. Soon after marriage I had my first son, Thaer, then a year later I had my second son Rami. Jude the youngest boy was born six years later.
HD: How is it being a Palestinian-American living in the West Bank?
It’s quite an experience to say the least. I’ve been living here for 16 years now, so I do feel like I belong. But that definitely was not the case when I first moved here. Back then I always felt like an outsider, I didn’t understand how things worked—and they work verydifferently than in the US. At first, I have to admit, everyone seemed somewhat backwards.
But once I really got to know the people where I live, and wasn’t just a temporary guest here—both in their eyes and mine—I realized just how kind so many people around me were, and that I had arrived with my own prejudices which I had to chip away at. I realized that I had to get over my feelings of being privileged, and I learned that we are all equal no matter where you live or what type of passport you hold.
HD: Picking up and leaving California for the West Bank is quite a change. What made you move?
My husband, who is also Palestinian, wanted to live here and raise our family here, and I agreed to move. Frankly, I was tired of living in the US. I was tired of everyone just working for the dollar to buy a bigger car or house. I was feeling very empty there.
I don’t feel like that here at all, there is a real sense of community here and I like that. I do however really miss my parents and sisters and brother. It pains me to be so far away, but the sacrifice is worth it because my children are happy here and this is home to them.
HD: How has that been—raising your children in Palestine?
It’s been great raising our children here. Don’t get me wrong, living under occupation sucks and it’s hard for me to have to see them being raised under such discrimination, but I feel it’s good for them to learn what the world is like.
My kids have the best of both worlds actually, we visit my family who still live in San Francisco almost every year—I actually see them as more American than Palestinian. They’re fluent in both Arabic and English and that makes me so proud.
They attend a very good Quaker school in the area—I’ve often wondered whether we could even afford such a school in the US.
HD: How does the conflict affect them, and you?
It affects us when the roads are closed and our daily routine is broken. We are then reminded of the occupation. It pains us to hear about the death of young people. It’s hard for me at times because I never thought I would need to teach or explain these things to my children. I never grew up with these things. I didn’t really understood the occupation until I started to live here.
HD: Do you think they will choose to stay in the Middle East once they’re older?
No, I don’t think so. They have a real strong connection to the US but at the same time, they may be forced to leave Palestine because of economics. There is already discussion of them going to college in the US.
HD: And what would you like to see for them in the future?
Too be happy and to fulfill their dreams.
HD: What do you think can realistically be achieved in your lifetime—or theirs—in the region?
Sadly, I don’t believe I will see any real changes during my life time–at least nothing concrete on a larger scale. There is too much at stake in order to solve this issue for both the Palestinian government and the Israelis. This conflict is being waged at the expense of the people living here—and many on both sides are also benefiting from this status quo. However, I do strongly believe that it is critical to continue to lay the groundwork work for a more just society for the future of Palestine. This is why I continue to my efforts to empower Palestinians–so that my children and grandchildren will enjoy the fruits of these labors.
HD: Having lived in both the US and Palestine, can you tell us about the differences you’ve experienced in accessing healthcare—both good and bad—especially as a mother?
As for access to healthcare, most Palestinians including women have access. Now, what type of access—that depends on your wealth. Obviously people who have money, even in Palestine, can get the best care, though that might mean going into Israel for that care. For the underprivileged, getting good care is difficult.
The public health care system is overwhelmed and under staffed and most doctors are educated abroad but don’t end up completing a residence. This makes me think they lack the necessary experience to diagnose and care for patients, especially women. Poor women don’t necessary listen to their pains, they may be worried about the cost of seeing an doctor so they avoid it all together. This is sad because we live in a time and age where early detection of any disease means that it can often be cured or at least managed.
HD: What made you want to work with an organization like Healing Across the Divides?
I think the work HD is doing is great. I have worked with many donors and I like how HD is looking to fund projects that are sustainable. Sustainable projects are rare here. Many NGOs’ have just wanted to receive funds to pay salaries and I think they too have lost sight of what donors should be doing here—which is to help build their capacity and to provide sustainable projects that will help the community.
HD: What would you most like to see changed in the Palestinian health system—especially for women—in the West Bank?
I would like to see better care for patients, both poor and rich, women and men.
HD: There has been some criticism that NGOs from abroad cause the Palestinian community to be dependent on outside support. What are your thoughts about this?
The occupation has made Palestine become donor dependent, there is no room for any type of economic growth. The PA can’t build factories to employ people, they too are dependent on Israel, waiting for Palestinian tax money to be transferred from Israel back to Palestine each month. So yes, in way I see this as the case. Some donors are enabling the occupation because if their aid money didn’t come, the Israelis would feel the economic effects of the occupation, which might bring some change on the ground, including the collapse of the PA. But on the other hand without the aid and with the collapse of the PA then the suffering of the people would be even greater.
HD: Is there anything problematic for you in the West Bank about working with an organization that also works with Israeli Jews?
No. I’ve worked with both peoples in the past.
HD: Do you think that being a woman is an advantage or a disadvantage as the HD representative in the West Bank, which is primarily a traditional patriarchal society?
It’s very common for women to work in Palestine. Israel being so close and westernized has actually progressed women a bit. Education is very important in the region and with highly educated women, work is more available to them. I see it as an advantage.
HD: Do you think there is any room or possibility for more cooperation between the groups in Israel or is it just too tense right now?
I really don’t know, but the situation currently would make it almost impossible. There are people here who worry about organizations like HD trying to “normalize” relations between Palestinians and Israelis. I know people are not ready for that now.
HD: Is there something you are especially excited about with regard to your new position?
I am excited to work with an organization that is looking for sustainability. I am also excited to be able to use my years experiences and expertise to help fund organizations in need.
To connect with Nehad directly to learn more about her and our work in the West Bank, or to propose a project you feel warrants our support, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org