*This story was collected in partnership with New Story Leadership.
Rawan Odeh is a Palestinian American. She lived half her life in New York and the other half in Nablus. Rawan holds a BA degree in Accounting from An Najah National University. Since then, Rawan has worked as an Asset Management Associate for Women’s World Banking in the MENA region. Afterwards, she went on a fellowship with Kings College London and published a research on the Economic Aspects of the Palestinian Israeli Conflict. Rawan is currently the Managing Director of New Story Leadership. An organization that brings young leaders from Palestine and Israel for a leadership program in Washington DC.
My journey begins in a tiny village, called Huwara, in the West Bank. I was born in Nablus, which is a city right outside there, and I spent the first three years of my life living there. After that, we immigrated to the United States, and we moved to New York City. My dad found a tiny, tiny apartment in Brooklyn and that’s where my collective memory of my childhood begins.
Brooklyn, for me, is home, and its where I go back to when I think of where I grew up. I was the Arab girl in my school, and my identity was formed around that. Even though I was the only Arab girl, we were living in a very diverse community, not well off at all. So, growing up, I felt like I had to be the Arab spokesperson of everything going on in the Middle East, and things got pretty crazy when 9/11 hit. My dad worked the same job for 20 years of his life, saved enough money to build a house in Palestine, and he came back to do that. During that time, we were living with our grandmother. He built this really pretty house, and I think it was one of my mother’s dreams, to have her own house, so that’s what he did.
In my hometown, Huwara, it’s in Area C of the West Bank, and what that means is that it is under Israeli military occupation. So there are Israeli soldiers in my village, every single day, patrolling our streets. My house was a base for them, the house that my dad built, they would come up and go to our rooftop and use it as a watchtower watch house. So, I interacted, I had to, I was forced to interact with Israeli soldiers, from day one of moving back there, and it really painted a lot of how I remember back home. In Nablus, because it is Area C, you only see them entering the city, and afterward, they are not really present unless they have a mission in which they will just invade the city.
It’s hard to pinpoint the first interaction that I had with an Israeli soldier. I do remember me saying to myself, “This is not ok”. Since growing up in Brooklyn, you don’t have military occupying your life, or controlling your life, or patrolling from point ‘a’ to point ‘b,’ or seeing them on your way to school, or them hindering your movement. So I always felt a sense of “This isn’t O.K., you know it has to be illegal, this cant is something that’s happening or going on”.
After a while, you become fine with it, mentally, and it just becomes a part of your everyday life. For example, when you are waiting for hours on a checkpoint, you are just waiting for hours on a checkpoint, and sometimes it’s hard to question it, after, you just live with it.
My first interaction with an Israeli citizen was in the United Kingdom. I got accepted to an exchange program, and I met Rotam (who is very close to me) for the first time. We were on a bus, going to the Lake District. It was a group of Indonesians, and British students, and American students, and Palestinan students, and Israeli students. My first conversation with her was, “Do you know what checkpoints are like for us?” We kind of got into a conversation about what my life is like. She was just so sorry, to know that that is how I live my life. It opened my eyes to the importance of communication, and I realized that we don’t communicate at home. It kind of sparked my motivation to be a part of this peace-building people-to- people field. Rotam is an Israeli-Auchkanazi Jew, her grandparents are from Poland, and her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. So she spoke about that as well.
Every time I walk into a congressional office, or a high profile meeting or setting, I am a 24-year-old Palestinan woman, usually the youngest one in the room, usually the woman, or the minority of the percentage of room, and usually the only Palestina. So when I am interacting with anyone in that setting, something flips inside of me. I just think that I can do it, and work my way through, and suddenly things start moving and rolling. I will tell my younger self and everyone that is listening, fake it till you make it, and don’t take no for an answer. There is always a way. If they say no today, they’ll say yes, three weeks later, after you find some kind of connection, to get them to take you seriously or to listen to you. So never give up.