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FOTO: Nisreen Haj Ahmed

YOU ARE STRONGER AS AN INDIVIDUAL WHEN YOU STAND WITH OTHERS

Nisreen Haj Ahmad works to give vulnerable communities in Jordan a public voice and a community.

When Nisreen Haj Ahmad was just two years old, her life took an unexpected turn. Her father was forced from their home to neighboring Lebanon. The rest of her life has been shaped by being part of a family in exile.

For the first few years, however, Nisreen Haj Ahmad stayed in Ramallah, Palestine, with her mother, four siblings and grandparents. Their home was a beautiful house with high ceilings and watermelons in the garden. For a long time they thought that Nisreen’s father would return home. However, when it became clear that he would not, his mother decided to reunite the family in Jordan, where his father had found a flat for them.

The flat was located on the third floor and was more cramped than Nisreen Haj Ahmad was used to. But it wasn’t so much her daily life that made it clear that her life had changed. It was more the trips home to Palestine every summer.

“The experiences on the Jordan-Palestine border have shaped me on an essential level,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad on a Zoom call. Like many others around the world, she is working from her home in Amman due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, she serves as the director of the organisation Ahel, which in Danish translates to community or family. Since 2011, Ahel has been working to bring together people in society who otherwise do not feel they have a voice. Theis is done by organising people into larger groups with a common goal of securing justice and their human rights.

AHEL AND KVINFO

Since the beginning of 2020, the Jordanian organisation Ahel has been collaborating with KVINFO.

The project targets vulnerable social groups and focuses on strengthening participants’ thoughts and ideas about their sense of belonging in society.

KVINFO and Ahel both focus on norms of masculinity among participants, as well as empowering young people, women and organisations.

One of the key methods Nisreen Haj Ahmad picked up at the Harvard Kennedy School is storytelling and organisation.

Another method is GenderLAB, which is a tool for taking a critical approach to societal norms, developed by KVINFO in collaboration with Copenhagen Business School.You can read more about GenderLAB by following this link.

The collaboration is funded by theNovo Nordisk Foundation and theDanish-Arab Partnership Programme under the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

THE JOURNEYS HOME TO PALESTINE

To understand why it is important for Nisreen Haj Ahmad to give voice to the voiceless, we need to take a closer look at her childhood and the border between Palestine and Jordan.

On the day of the trip, the family got up at five in the morning to make sure they were at the front of the queue when the border crossing opened at eight. But they were far from the only ones with this plan. Every year, people lined up with crying children in their arms and packed lunches of boiled eggs. Israeli and Jordanian guards stood on both sides of them. When Nisreen Haj Ahmad and her family finally reached the border, they had to go through a security check where they were asked to enter small booths with fabric curtains and undress.

“My mother had to take off her clothes in front of the guards. In our culture and family, that is extremely degrading,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.

Afterwards, the guards gathered all the travelers in the middle of King Hussein’s Bridge, which forms the border between Jordan and Israel. Everyone had to take off their shoes and put them in a big box. There was no longer an explanation as to why. It was a maneuver to humiliate the traveling Palestinians, Nisreen Haj Ahmad recalls.

Once everyone had put their shoes back on, the guards took the box with them, while Nisreen, her family and all the others were told to remain seated. It was the middle of summer, the sun was baking and the smell of people’s bare feet permeated the air.

After some time, the guards returned with the shoes and threw them into a big pile, after which everyone scrambled over the pile to find both their shoes and get on with their journey as quickly as possible.

“People behaved like hungry animals chasing prey. That experience robbed us of all honor. This was most evident for those who could not find both their shoes and had to continue walking fully or half barefoot,” Nisreen Haj Ahmad recalls.

PROSPECTS FOR BETTER TIMES

The experience at the border crossing laid the foundation for the rest of Nisreen Haj Ahmad’s life. She trained as a lawyer to safeguard people’s rights, and when the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLO) was signed in 1993, she and her family returned to Palestine. Her father had been living in political exile until then. That journey was different. People cheered on the bus, and at the border there were no guards or security checks.

“It was a very positive time. We all thought that peace would come. Now we would get our country back. We believed there would be prosperity and progress and peace for Palestine,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.

In the following years after 1995, she worked as a legal negotiator on behalf of the Palestinians on how to put the peace agreement into practice. Every day she remembers doing everything she could to develop the best arguments and find the best people to make alliances with, believing that if she just spoke objectively enough, concretely enough, diplomatically enough, they would find a good solution.

But one day, Nisreen Haj Ahmad’s grandmother took her up to a window in their house and pointed to some hills on the horizon. The grandmother told me that a few years ago, the Israeli occupations were right up on the hilltops. Now they almost reached the family’s backyard.

“That’s when I realised that I had closed my eyes to what everyone else had already recognised: there were really no negotiations going on, and no matter how many factual arguments I brought to the table, no one was listening and I was unable to change that. Palestine was not becoming independent and peace was not on the way,” she says.

At the time, Nisreen Haj Ahmad had no idea what to do with herself. Her saving grace was the opportunity to spend a year in Boston, USA. She was offered to study at the Harvard Kennedy School. She accepted the offer.

REDISCOVERING FAITH

With her four-year-old son in her arms, Nisreen Haj Ahmad traveled to the United States. Back in Palestine was her now ex-husband and a life where questions of life and death and survival were an integral part of everyday living.

“The journey became my breathing space. Kind of like a much needed vacation. The only thing I had to worry about when I put my head on the pillow in the evening was how to complete my assignments before the deadline,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.

At university, she took public narrative and organising where she met a professor named Marshall Ganz. He was first her teacher, then her mentor and now her sounding board. In the public narrative course, students had to start from themselves and initially answer the question: “Why do I care?”

That question planted a seed in Nisreen Haj Ahmad’s mind and got her thinking: “Who are my fellow human beings, who is on my team?” instead of thinking: “What is the problem?” and “who is going to solve it?”

These questions made her recall her work at the negotiating table. With the new insights from the Harvard Kennedy School, it became clear to her that the Palestinians saw themselves as very much dependent on the negotiator. They did not see themselves as someone who could make an actual difference.

“It struck me that there is a tendency for the people who suffer the most to believe that there is someone else who will represent and defend them on their behalf. But you can’t count on that. You have to fight your own battle,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.

With this in mind, she went back to Jordan, where she founded the organisation Ahel with her colleague Mais Irqsusi. Their goal was clear. They wanted to empower people to make independent choices and fight for their rights in a community. In other words, their philosophy is that you are stronger as an individual when you stand together with others and take ownership of the situation: when you get organised and have a common cause in mind.

“At Ahel, every employee has something in them that makes them fight for the oppressed. Those who are deprived of their honor and freedom. My own experiences have made me see the world not only through rights, laws and conventions, but also through the strength and ability of people to take ownership of their own lives if given the opportunity and the means to do so,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.

SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGNS

Over the past nine years, Ahel has grown to include 12 staff members who have trained more than 30 local trainers, who in turn have carried out 20 campaigns in Jordan as well as in other Arab countries, particularly, Lebanon and Palestine.

The campaigns are special because they bring people together from the local level for a common cause. This is, for example, what they did with theStand Up with theTeachers campaign in 2015. It brought together female teachers from private schools in Jordan, all of whom were paid below the minimum wage and forced to resign before the summer holidays, as well as losing their contracts when they became pregnant.

However, when teachers organised, it yielded tangible results. Their voice eventually became so loud that the Minister of Education, Omar Razzaz, introduced new rules requiring all private schools to provide transparent financial statements in order to get their certifications approved. The bank statements must prove that teachers have been paid the minimum wage for all 12 months of the year.

A group of young people managed to carry out the same kind of campaign with the support of Ahel. They had been sexually abused as children, but in a joint campaign they helped to detaboo such a vulnerable issue.

“When people have the courage to share their stories, whether it’s about being fired, underpaid or exploited, I find that people end up empowered. They go from being in a position of victimhood to becoming empowered actors who help secure rights and break taboos,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.

“It makes me proud and humble. And it gives me the feeling that I’m not wasting my life.”

NEW CHAPTER WITH KVINFO

KVINFO and Ahel’s collaboration is not a campaign in itself, but a larger project. It aims to work with participants’ thoughts and ideas about not being “the underdog”, but also having the power and strength to change their own circumstances.

“This is important because it shows in all our campaigns. Whether they are about sexual harassment, safety at home or even political change. Participants’ starting point should be that they have an understanding of power as something oppressive. This understanding needs to be turned on its head. Power and strength is something everyone can have if you know how to take it,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.

Learn more about Ahel’s work on their own websiteby following this link.