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!
[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!