By Steven Keller
As a MAAS student in the mid-90s reading Sara Roy’s important book, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development, little could I have imagined that I would one day have the opportunity to spend more than a decade (and counting) leading the Palestine portfolio of the respected education organization AMIDEAST. Nor could I have imagined that the grim picture of Gaza painted by Roy’s comprehensive research would seem so much better in so many ways than the Gaza that I encountered at the start of my tenure here in 2006—or how much worse it has become since then.
My work as Palestine Country Director, which involves overseeing projects in scholarships and exchanges, education reform, English-language teaching, youth empowerment, and a range of services for Palestinians interested in study abroad, is a regular source of exacting challenges and heart-filling rewards. Our students face incredible obstacles, while AMIDEAST, as an organization, must also navigate a host of structural challenges, such as balancing adherence to U.S. policy in Gaza while being careful not to run afoul of the local government. For example, U.S. policy forbids engagement with the Hamas-led government, making impossible such simple acts as meeting with a public-school principal in Gaza—the very acts that are necessary steps toward the type of education reform we are engaged in, with support from USAID, in the West Bank. Even what should be routine matters, like arranging the travel of scholars and exchange students from Gaza to their programs abroad, often requires very senior officials to move heaven and earth to secure necessary travel permissions and paperwork.
Though the challenges are plentiful, so are the rewards. One of the most fulfilling parts of my job is providing opportunities for bright, talented young people to prove their capabilities and transform their successes into futures that they would otherwise not have been able to consider. This occurs through a process that we call “laddering,” in which one of our programs gives a student his or her first opportunity—to study English through the U.S. State Department-funded Access program, for example—which then helps him or her to qualify for another opportunity, and so on. One ambitious girl, Nada, from al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah first participated in a summer camp we run with funding from the American Consulate in Jerusalem called “Camp Discovery.” Nada then took advantage of several other programs until she eventually landed a full scholarship at Mount Holyoke.
Another “laddering” success story comes from a young Gazan woman named Iman, who will forever be an inspiration to me. An alumna of Access, the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, and other programs, Iman was a rising junior with a double major in literary studies and biology at Columbia College in South Carolina when she lost her parents and two brothers in an Israeli rocket attack in the Gaza Strip. Despite almost unfathomable personal trauma, Iman did not give up. She had made a pledge to her parents to graduate, and she was determined to do so. In fact, she graduated a year early and won first place in her college’s essay contest. Several years later, Iman is now a candidate for the prestigious Fulbright scholarship.
There are many, many students from Gaza and other parts of Palestine whose transformational journeys through AMIDEAST-administered programs inspire me, fill my heart, and make me proud. I am grateful to the MAAS program for the role its faculty, coursework, internship opportunities, and consistently supportive environment played in getting me here.
Steven Keller graduated from the MAAS program in 2000 and has served as the AMIDEAST Palestine Country Director since 2006.