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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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