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Ruth and MaryAnn: the story of how two Ohioans got involved in UNRWA's work selling Canaan Fair Trade olive oil

Ruth and MaryAnn: the story of how two Ohioans got involved in UNRWA's work selling Canaan Fair Trade olive oil

Ruth and MaryAnn, dear friends and partners for Palestine

Ruth and MaryAnn, dear friends and partners for Palestine

Selling Palestinian olive oil is a great opportunity to spread the word about Palestine and speak to customers one on one about UNRWA’s work.
— Ruth Tracy

Ruth Tracy and MaryAnn Kerr are the kind of old friends that finish each other's sentences. When speaking to them, you get the sense they are of one mind -- equally driven and focused. Their energy and enthusiasm are that of someone a third of their age. They radiate positivity and passion. And one thing they're both passionate about -- the thing that brought them together -- is the situation of Palestine refugees. 

This is their story. 

Ruth first heard about UNRWA and its work while living in Beirut, Lebanon in 1967. She volunteered with an American women's organization raising funds for women's centers in the camps, specifically in Ein El Hillweh camp near Sidon. 

Fast forward several years -- Ruth wanted to maintain her connection with Palestine while living in the States and came across various organizations selling Palestinian products abroad. One of these was Canaan Fair Trade. After initially just ordering from Canaan, Ruth began to sell their olive oils to friends, family, and at the local farmer’s market. As to not compete with any other sellers, but rather work with them, Ruth asked the Canaan Fair Trade team if there was anyone else selling their products in the Cleveland area. They immediately mentioned a woman named MaryAnn Kerr. At the same time, Ruth was considering going on an Interfaith Peace Builder's (IFPB) delegation trip to Palestine and wished to connect with someone who had already gone on the trip. IFPB also pointed her to the very same person -- MaryAnn Kerr.

It felt like no small coincidence that MaryAnn’s name came up twice in such a short time, so Ruth gave MaryAnn a call, they agreed to meet at a Turkish restaurant, and the rest is history!

This was the first of many meetings and coincidences in their longstanding and growing relationship. Quickly, they realized that MaryAnn's husband and Ruth's former husband attended school together in Beirut. These connections made the world feel small, and they wanted to make it even smaller by creating a stronger connection between Palestine and Ohio.

Ultimately, with the encouragement from MaryAnn, Ruth made a trip to Palestine during the annual olive harvest and met the folks at Canaan Fair Trade. She said upon meeting them, she instantly felt a lightbulb go off and knew she chose the right way to place her efforts to bring greater awareness of the situation of Palestinians to the average American back home. Inspired, Ruth has been selling Palestinian olive oil in her home state of Ohio through Canaan's interfaith program in the US ever since.  

Olives, olive oil, and the olive harvest are all synonymous with Palestinian identity, so it is no surprise that MaryAnn and Ruth saw this as a powerful way to connect people to something complex and longstanding (the situation of Palestine refugees) via something simple, delicious, and accessible to the average American (olive oil).

All the while, through their sales they've supported Palestinian farmers, and organizations they care deeply about -- Interfaith Peace Builders, Canaan Fair Trade, and UNRWA USA. 

Ruth comments that "selling Palestinian olive oil is a great opportunity to spread the word about Palestine and speak to customers one on one about UNRWA’s work [...] many people don’t know about [UNRWA's] history and impact in Gaza and Syria."

Christmas shopping display at 'Beit Tracy' (beit is the Arabic word for house)

Christmas shopping display at 'Beit Tracy' (beit is the Arabic word for house)

Beginning in 2008, Ruth and MaryAnn worked together to share the proceeds from olive oil sales with UNRWA USA and two other nonprofits working in Palestine. In 2012, they formalized their relationship with UNRWA USA so that 20% of their sales would go directly towards UNRWA programming. 

When probed on why a mid-western American like herself is so passionate about UNRWA’s work and how she became aware of it in the first place, MaryAnn confidently asserts: 

I visited so many refugee camps, and UNRWA’s presence — including schools and medical care — really helped people survive. One of the most interesting things I noticed was the effort that UNRWA puts into helping people remember their culture. So much energy is spent erasing that cultural memory, and UNRWA has made a huge contribution to preserving it.

Though still dedicated to issues of social justice, in 2015, after years of enthusiastic volunteering, MaryAnn retired to spend more time with her granddaughter. Though she does not sell olive oil alongside Ruth anymore, they continue to be close friends, and she still continues to promote peace through her work with IFPB, among other organizations that work on the issue of Palestine.

Ruth continues to sell Canaan Fair Trade olive oil at the seasonal fair trade market and speaks as passionately as MaryAnn about UNRWA's work. She wants the broader American public to know:

Palestinian refugees have the same aspirations for a positive future as we all do and the occupation is the most egregious long-lasting attack on human rights that we know of, keeping Palestinians hampered in every way with no end in sight. Without UNRWA and its housing, education, job development, health and emergency relief programs, Palestinians would indeed be lost. Improving the futures of Palestinians is UNRWA’s true mission and should be widely supported.

Check out the Ohio Fair Trade schedule to see when Ruth may be selling Canaan products near you. Please note, the last event of the holiday season is the Women Speak Out Annual Peace Festival and Bazaar at Pilgrim Church, 2582 W. 14th Street, in Cleveland on Saturday, December 9, 2017. 

If you cannot make the event, anyone living in the Cleveland who wishes to order Canaan products from Ruth, delivered right to your door, can do so by calling (216) 408-6297.

If you live outside Ohio, you can buy your own Canaan Fair Trade products online and 10% of your purchase will be donated to UNRWA USA.

mind over mountain: a palestinian american educator's ongoing journey to support trauma-affected youth

mind over mountain: a palestinian american educator's ongoing journey to support trauma-affected youth

As a certified teacher and a Palestinian American, I am passionate about improving the lives of afflicted Palestinians currently living in conflict areas. I truly believe that today’s children are our future’s change makers.

This week, while most of us are reaching for our stretchy pants, preparing ourselves for a large Thanksgiving meal, UNRWA USA supporter Haneen Sakakini will be packing her hiking pants in preparation to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain. Apart from being an avid hiker, Haneen is a Palestinian American educator, with specific expertise in the impact that childhood trauma has on the well-being of children and their education. In combining these two sides of herself, she plans on climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro as a way to fundraise and raise awareness for UNRWA's Community Mental Health Programme (CMHP) in the Gaza Strip, and she's calling it Mind Over Mountain. 

So what brings this young Palestinian American woman to the roof of Africa?

Haneen has always loved being outside -- it was a habit that her parents instilled in her through frequent hiking and camping trips growing up. During her two years living in Palestine (2012-2014) teaching at the Ramallah Friends School, she and a group of friends went on regular hiking trips. Most Friday's, they'd select a path in Jericho, pack their bags, eat their fill of manaeesh, and start their journey for the day. Haneen comments on hiking as a therapeutic process: "There is something about being outside in nature that just brings happiness and a sense of serenity, even with all the things happening around you and across the world."

Haneen is always up for a challenge, and Mt. Kilimanjaro has been on her bucket list for some time. She says that "it has always been that mountain in the distance that sparked a sense of curiosity for me." When she was given the option to join her company’s Kilimanjaro trek, she jumped at the opportunity.

Why the Mind Over Mountain fundraising campaign?

As part of the trek, each Kilimanjaro climber is required to fundraise for a cause meaningful to them. Beyond the requirement, Haneen sees this climb as a perfect opportunity to give back and raise awareness about a topic that is very close to her heart.

I wanted to give my self something to work for, I didn’t want to simply climb Kilimanjaro for my own personal gain, but I wanted to use it as a way to push myself in order to help others, others whose voices seem to get muffled due to the continuously evolving world we live in today.

When she learned about the UNRWA Community Mental Health Programme (CMHP), she says the decision to fundraise for it was a "no-brainer." She saw dedicating her campaign to this essential program as a way to mitigate some of the psychological impacts of war and occupation on Palestine refugee children.

Manaeesh-fueled hiking in Jericho

Manaeesh-fueled hiking in Jericho

While teaching in Palestine, Haneen points to a single experience as “the turning point” in her professional and personal pursuits. In the summer of 2014, a young 16-year-old boy from Ramallah was shot in the back and killed by Israeli military in the West Bank. This was the same summer as the Israeli military assault on Gaza which lasted 50 days and killed more than 500 children. Haneen recognized that the loss of this young boy represented just one of many incidents of violence towards Palestinians and that violence has integrated itself into every aspect of the Palestinian experience. And this violence is one that has spanned decades, traumatizing generations upon generations of Palestinians, especially refugees, in a profound way.

She sees education, which includes counseling, as an entry point into addressing some of this trauma faced by Palestine refugees, and deeply believes in the goals of UNRWA's CMHP in Gaza. She hopes that in climbing this mountain, she will also raise awareness and funds for a cause that spoke deeply to her as a Palestinian American educator. 

Ultimately, Haneen hopes to get her Ph.D. and further delve into this issue and aims to use her research to support children across the globe -- not just Palestine -- in dealing with severe conflict-related and induced trauma. 

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Haneen will be embarking on her big journey before you finish all your leftover turkey. And as a final note to the Palestine refugee children she hopes benefit from the Community Mental Health Programme, Haneen wishes to share the following message:

"Always remember that your brain fueled by your education is the most powerful tool in the world. Continue to shoot for the stars, never lose hope, and know that people around the world love you, support you, and hear you."

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catching up with unrwa alum, un director, and runner maher nasser

catching up with unrwa alum, un director, and runner maher nasser

Maher fist bumps with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; typical day at the office. 

Maher fist bumps with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; typical day at the office. 

Gaza and UNRWA have played an important role in my life and in bringing me to where I am today.

Meet Maher Nasser.

Born in Ramallah, Maher and his family are from a village called Muzeir'ah near Lydda. 

A jack of all trades, Maher has spent the past 30 years being a humanitarian working for the United Nations, three years running the NYC Marathon fundraising for UNRWA scholarships for women in Gaza and the West Bank, and a lifetime giving back to his community.  

His connections with UNRWA's work run deep, and he spent some time sharing with us how UNRWA's work and services has shaped him and his family and how he has continued to give back, never forgetting his roots, no matter how far away from Palestine he travels.  

His father worked for UNRWA and he along with his three brothers went to UNRWA schools from grades 1-9. While at the Ramallah Boys Preparatory School, he fondly recalls his favorite teacher, Abdul Aziz. He remembers sitting in his English class, excited by the prospect of learning a new language. After graduating, he then went on to study civil engineering at Birzeit University with a partial scholarship from UNRWA. His sister and younger brother also received higher education through UNRWA, and attended a two-year vocational school run by the Agency.

In 1992, he left Ramallah when he was offered an international position with the United Nations Drugs Control Programme in Vienna. He confesses that surprisingly the biggest shock when he left Ramallah wasn't the food, culture, or customs, but rather, the freedom from foreign military occupation.

Since his first stint abroad, Maher has lived and worked around the globe. He has held positions in Gaza, Jerusalem, Amman, Cairo, and New York, including a role as the Chief of the New York Liaison Office for UNRWA.

When Maher isn't at the UN, he spends his time running through the streets of New York City. Maher uses running as not only away to burn off the stress of trying to solve international diplomatic problems, but also as a way to raise awareness and funds for various causes, including UNRWA.

When asked why he fundraises for Palestine refugees, Maher says, "Gaza and UNRWA have played an important role in my life and in bringing me to where I am today. The images of suffering and pain in Gaza, and the heroic efforts of UNRWA staff to alleviate that suffering have prompted me to do something concrete to help out. There are immediate humanitarian needs and a great thirst for hope and compassion. With my modest effort, I hope to contribute a bit of hope and some resources to an Agency that I know can deliver effectively." 

In 2014, Nasser participated in the Women's Health "Run 10 Feed 10" and raised over $5,000 for UNRWA’s Gaza emergency appeal through UNRWA USA.

Since 2015, Maher has also run the NYC Marathon to fundraise for education programming for women in the West Bank and Gaza.

Maher states that he "never thought [he] would ever be able to run a marathon, let alone three. However, knowing that this would give one or more young women in Palestine an opportunity to attend university and change their lives has given [him] the energy and determination to do so."

Maher will be running this Sunday November 5th, and we're excited to cheer him on! Tweet your support @MaherNasserUN.

Maher training for the NYC Marathon

Maher training for the NYC Marathon

Tweets from Maher