Why Iftar for Gaza has become a tradition at Coney Island Prep High School

Why Iftar for Gaza has become a tradition at Coney Island Prep High School

We often like to highlight the first time we do something for its novelty and excitement. But there's something to be celebrated about doing something a second time, as it reminds us that what we chose to do has more than a one-time value.

For UNRWA USA and Christy Boise, it's been a year of "seconds." It is the second time our organization has offered the Iftar for Gaza campaign, a social gathering that helps put food on the table for Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip, and it's the second time Christy and the students of Coney Island Prep High School in New York have decided to participate.  

Christy is an educator at Coney Island Prep, where she is also the French Department Chair and advisor to the Middle Eastern Students Association (MESA). Recently, she shared with us what compelled her school to host an Iftar for Gaza event last year and why she and her students are making it a tradition and coming together -- for a second year -- to host an iftar to support Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip. 

[UNRWA USA]: How did you hear about UNRWA USA and in particular, Iftar for Gaza?

[Christy]: My heritage is Jordanian and I'm familiar with and passionate about the situation in Palestine and for Palestine refugees. This is a really important cause to me. One thing I love about UNRWA is that such a high percentage of donations go directly to refugees. Also, the organization employs such a large number of refugees, so you know when you're giving you're creating a sustainable impact that's helping people in multiple ways. 

I've participated in the NYC Gaza 5K and got really excited when I saw the announcement for Iftar for Gaza and decided that we definitely needed to host one at our school! I advise the Middle Eastern Students Association (MESA) at Coney Island Prep, and we have some fantastic student leaders who took initiative and made the event the success it was. Yasmeen, a student who has now graduated, spearheaded the effort and was very excited about bringing together students of various backgrounds to start up important conversations about Ramadan, multiculturalism, and the situation for refugees in the Gaza Strip. 

[UNRWA USA]: Why did MESA decide to host an iftar last year, what made you want to participate again, and what do you hope for this year's event?

[Christy]: We like helping other people and try to have at least one service project each year.  Something really cool about our school is that it is very diverse and we have students from a number of different nationalities in our club. It's especially nice to plan an activity in which we can bring families and community members from our school together around the dinner table!

There is something about bringing people together around food that makes people open up in a way that is sometimes impossible in other situations. Any time you can have an event that is helping other people and also brings communities, families, students, parents, and staff together around food is something that I see great value in and find deeply powerful. I've seen how the act of tasting food from a different place has the ability to transport a person to another culture and open their mind to something new in an authentic way.

Last year, we had students from the Middle East bring their families' traditional recipes. One student told her friends that she would be bringing her mom's homemade knafeh, many students came to the iftar explicitly to taste a bit of her family's culture and home! 

This year we are hoping to continue this tradition of raising awareness about the plight of Palestine refugees in the Middle East and have an even bigger and better turn out! 

[UNRWA USA]: What do you think the biggest benefit of this event or takeaway was for your students? How do you think this event will impact them beyond the classroom?

We have a big African-American student population with families who have been in the US for a long time but do not necessarily have a strong connection to the Middle East, refugees, or the cultural significance behind Ramadan. It was wonderful for our Middle Eastern and South Asian students to be able to share their views and perspectives and teach their fellow classmates about an issue that is not usually taught in the classroom but is one they are passionate about.

Together, we discussed what it means to be from a different background, the value of helping other people, especially those in need, and the issues facing refugees. These types of topics are not the focus inside most traditional classes, so this event gave our club the opportunity to talk about these issues and learn from each other -- something I think all the students will carry with them for a long time. 

[UNRWA USA]: Can you share with us some memorable moments from last year's event? 

[Christy]: We had a much bigger turnout than expected and earned far more than we had hoped!  During the school day, we made a special presentation during our Community Meeting (a whole-school assembly) and at the event, students spoke and shared why we were holding the Iftar, what Ramadan means to them, and why it's important to help those in Gaza who are suffering due to years of blockade and oppression.

Some of the most memorable moments stemmed from the conversations students had. The Dean of Students asked the students to take three minutes to ponder the conversation topics provided by UNRWA USA in the Iftar for Gaza hosting kit along with discussion questions students created independently. Then, teachers walked around the room to assist students in creating thoughtful and productive conversation. The table topics from the kit were placed on the table for students to reference. We called on some students to share their thoughts, and I remember some of them were very profound, mature, and enlightening! This sharing of thoughts and experiences in our communal discussion made our Iftar that much more meaningful!

Some highlights from the 2017 Coney Island Prep Iftar for Gaza

[UNRWA USA] Tell us about your fundraising. How did you promote the event and the cause?

[Christy]: Before the event, two student leaders, Yosef and Mohamed designed new t-shirts for MESA. Though we have a school uniform, we had a special dress down day so students could wear their MESA shirts and raise awareness about the club and our event. We had student-designed posters around the school announcing the iftar, as well. Earlier in the year, we also held a bake sale that raised funds for MESA to put on events like this one!

Something really cool about our school is that it is very diverse and we have students from a number of different nationalities in our club [MESA]. It’s especially nice to plan an activity in which we can bring families and community members from our school together around the dinner table! There is something about bringing people together around food that makes people open up in a way that is sometimes impossible in other situations.

[UNRWA USA]: As an educator, what is a lesson you share with your students about the situation facing Palestine refugees that you'd like to share with students across America?

[Christy]: I try to share that it's important to recognize stereotypes and look beyond them. I often point out the (mis-)use of Palestinians, Arabs, and refugees, in general, in media, in the movies and on TV. I also share firsthand information about my experiences with Palestinian friends living in Jordan. The first time I participated in the Gaza 5K, I shared some infographics to connect issues of loss and tragedy that refugees face and how that intersects with issues here in the United States. I believe there is a lot more that connects us than divides us, and it is important to have these kinds of conversations to lay the groundwork for better understanding of other people's perspectives and struggles.

[UNRWA USA]: A large part of UNRWA's work is providing free education to Palestine refugees in the Middle East. Why do you believe education is important -- not just here in the US but around the world?

[Christy]: Education provides hope for a better future for children around the world. MESA strongly believes in the UN Declaration of Human Rights that everyone should have an equal opportunity for education, whether they are a student in the US or a refugee in the Middle East. Iftar for Gaza was a way to start a dialogue and take advantage of the beautifully diverse and multicultural environment we have at our school.

There's no age limit to learning and there's so much value in hearing from people of various backgrounds and experiences. At the event, it wasn't just the students who were learning, but it was an opportunity for the school's staff (who were unfamiliar with the Middle East, refugees, UNRWA, and Ramadan) to see things differently, create dialogue on what is happening in the Middle East, and open people's minds to seeing things differently, more accurately, and more fully! 

[UNRWA USA]: Do you plan on hosting for a third year?

[Christy]: Yes, absolutely! We're calling this year's event the 'second annual Iftar for Gaza' with the hope that it's a tradition we'll continue every year! It's such an important cause and it was a successful, fun, and engaging event at our school, so I encourage other high schools in the US to participate as well!

Inspired by Christy and the students at Coney Island Prep? Get details on how to host your own #IftarforGaza this Ramadan, including how to set up your fundraising page and download a copy of our free hosting guide!

Meet Ghassan Salameh: UNRWA USA's new board chair

Meet Ghassan Salameh: UNRWA USA's new board chair

The UNRWA USA board of directors announced that after 8 years of dedicated service and outstanding leadership as the chair, Ambassador (ret.) Philip C. Wilcox, Jr. has been appointed chair emeritus. The board elected Ghassan Salameh as the new chair, succeeding Ambassador Wilcox in that role.

Though Ghassan has been a member of the UNRWA USA board for six years, his connection with UNRWA runs far deeper. Recently, Ghassan spent time with our staff to share more of his personal story.

Ghassan’s family was one of the tens of thousands of Palestinian families dispossessed from their home and made refugees during the Nakba in 1948.

His family fled to Lebanon, and like many Palestinian families faced years of very difficult conditions. The early years were especially hard, extended family members squeezed together in one room and struggled to make a living. His family's problems were further exacerbated by his father's tragic accident, leaving him blind and unable to work. Under these challenges circumstances, UNRWA served as his family's lifeline.

UNRWA provided a monthly allotment of food, healthcare services, and most importantly, an education. For his elementary and middle school years, he attended UNRWA's Carmel School in Al Hadath, a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. Many of the students at his school were bused from the neighboring Palestinian refugee camps. He graduated in 1968, followed by high school at the Vatican sponsored Pontifical Mission for Palestine refugees in Dbayeh refugee camp. His last year of high school, he attended the Lebanese Evangelical School for Boys. 

 Ghassan's UNRWA school: Carmel School Al Hadath, Lebanon 

Ghassan's UNRWA school: Carmel School Al Hadath, Lebanon 

"My formative memories from my childhood years all come back to UNRWA and the critical role it played in our lives,” reflects Ghassan. "My family is successful today because of what UNRWA did for us then when we had no one else. My three brothers and I are all UNRWA graduates. Without UNRWA, people like me wouldn’t be where they are."

And though 'where they are,' physically translates to scattered across the world, Ghassan and his former UNRWA classmates still remain in touch. From Australia to Canada to the Middle East, they remain connected through a Facebook group where they update each other on recent events, share photos, and reflect on childhood memories.

Each year, they hold a reunion, and this year, more than a dozen of them came together in Las Vegas, Nevada. While they say what happens in Vegas stays there, Ghassan couldn’t help but share his happiness in the opportunity to see old friends. He said what was most rewarding was to see all of his UNRWA classmates now, successful within their own fields, and with families of their own. He proudly commented that the emphasis on the importance of education was a value they all passed on to their children.

Ghassan came to the United States when he was 20 years old and received his BS in Mechanical Engineering from the California State University-Sacramento and an MBA, focusing on marketing and finance, from the University of San Francisco. From there, he rose through the ranks of Booz Allen from Associate to the coveted position of Senior Partner. Since retiring from Booz Allen, he has held senior management positions at top global companies and is currently the Chairman and CEO of Rubix Holdings, a technology and investment company that has just launched its first two global social media platforms, with more on the way.

The embodiment of the ‘American dream,’ Ghassan is thoughtful and soft-spoken. He credits his success to his family, UNRWA, and many other people and institutions who helped him along the way. Consequently, he has dedicated much of his time, energy, and resources, to giving back to those who supported him and especially to the Palestinian community with a dual focus on education and health.

Ghassan has done so through his work as an UNRWA USA board member since 2012 and most recently, through an upcoming campaign and fundraiser through the Bethlehem University Foundation entitled "The Way to Bethlehem.” On May 15, 2018, Ghassan will embark on a 40-day pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, as a way to raise awareness for Bethlehem University, draw attention to the issues of freedom of movement facing Palestinians, and highlight the importance of access to education.

When asked about the challenges he foresees UNRWA facing and his focus as board chair for UNRWA USA in the coming year, he advises: 

UNRWA has always struggled to keep its funding, but this year is a much greater struggle — it is a major crisis. Without international, especially American support, millions of refugees will be impacted, and those who will be impacted most are children. Food, health, and education are fundamental and when the lives of children are at stake, we must set aside politics and focus on what is important.

Ghassan's impressive business background and personal connection with UNRWA provide greater insight to our work. His service to the board has and will continue to be instrumental to UNRWA USA's growth. We look forward to the continued guidance and leadership Ghassan will provide our board and staff as we continue to grow as an organization in our pursuit of improving the lives of Palestine refugees.

From Palestine to Syria to Ohio: Dr. Yanes' Story

From Palestine to Syria to Ohio: Dr. Yanes' Story

I know very well what UNRWA does and have reaped the fruits of its efforts. Thanks to it I am here to say these words.
— Dr. Basel Yanes

Dr. Basel Yanes was born in Beit Dajan, a village outside of Yaffa, Palestine, in 1947. In 1948, his family, like over 750,000 Palestinians, were forced to flee their home and become refugees. Displaced, his family left for Syria, and Dr. Yanes grew up in Damascus, where, as a newborn he joined other refugees who had lost everything upon leaving Palestine.

Syria was markedly different in his youth -- unimaginable to most given the destruction and horrors that have grasped the country since the start of the civil war in 2011. He recalls Damascus wistfully, recalling it was a "quaint cultural city with good universities having a drastically smaller population of around 500,000." His father was able to get a job within two years at UNRWA, and ultimately rose through the ranks to become the Director of the Southern District in Syria.

While his family did not live in the refugee camps, he had many friends and family that did in Syria. He clearly recalls a center run by UNRWA that distributed lunches to Palestine refugees and remembers as a child standing in line eager for daily rations.

 Young Dr. Yanes, alongside his family in Damascus, Syria

Young Dr. Yanes, alongside his family in Damascus, Syria

With a deep sigh, Dr. Yanes says, “UNRWA helped us survive. My father’s job helped us survive.”

Soon after his father was employed by UNRWA, he was bringing home an income that covered their family’s basic necessities. Upon finishing high school at the free public school, Dr. Yanes (then, just Basel) applied and received an UNRWA scholarship to attend university and medical school.

“If I didn’t have the UNRWA scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school at the University of Damascus and be where I am today,” he confidently states.

After medical school, Dr. Yanes went to the US to complete residency at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, and then went on to do a fellowship in hematology and oncology at Ohio State University Hospital. He completed his fellowship in 1976 and has called Dayton, Ohio home since then.

Dr. Yanes is a proud Palestinian-American and an asset and leader to his community:

For nearly 50 years I have been a proud, loyal, and committed American citizen. As a cancer specialist I dedicate my life to my community and patients.
— Dr. Yanes

This is exemplified by his impressive contributions to the medical field and his Ohio community. He has and continues to work in private practice and is president of the DBA Dayton Blood and Cancer Center in Dayton. In the past, he served as the President of the Medical Oncology Hematology Associates, and today he imparts his wisdom and knowledge to others by teaching as a Clinical Professor at Wright State University.

When asked about his identity, especially in a time that politics, identity, and immigration are on the forefront of the public mind, he continues: “I feel fortunate to be able to straddle two worlds by growing up in the Middle East and spending much of my life in this country [America], I had the opportunity to have both cultures shape the man I am today.”

 Dr. Yanes with his family in August, 2016 on his 70th birthday

Dr. Yanes with his family in August, 2016 on his 70th birthday

While much of Dr. Yanes’s extended family is dispersed around the world, following the start of the war in Syria, stateside, he is the proud father of three children and grandfather to one girl, all of whom live in various cities in the US.

As a father and grandfather, he speaks with concern about Palestine refugee youth and states with a heavy heart:

I look at the Palestinian children, forgotten under unbearable conditions. They bear hunger, disease, oppression, and despair. The hand extended to them by organizations like UNRWA soothes their wounds and gives them hope. It rekindles their belief in humanity. I look at them and hope they will have the opportunities I had. One day, I know they will grow up and serve to create greater peace and humanity. My message to the US government? Do not let politics kill their hopes and shatter their dreams.