WASHINGTON — Among the crowd of protesters gathered outside an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington on March 20th stood a number of Palestinian families.
“I don’t want to just say that it’s because we’re Palestinian,” Rowayda Widdi told MintPress News. “We’re really active in these things because we have family back home that’s directly affected by Zionism and colonization by the state of Israel.”
Widdi, a Students for Justice in Palestine activist and graduate of the College of Staten Island, traveled to the protest from New York with her two sisters, Gigi and Souphie.
The three came from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, one of the country’s historic Palestinian neighborhoods, where extended families have often propelled Palestinian mobilizations in New York and elsewhere.
Like the Widdis, many share backgrounds deeply rooted in Palestinian resistance to Zionism.
“My mother’s birthday was on Friday, March 18,” Widdi said. “She was born in 1948. She recalls many of the events that went on at that time. She lived in caves, basically, during the war. Her oldest brother was actually sent to war at 15 years old.”
“She lives today,” Widdi added. “She’s 68 years old, and she sits her grandchildren down and tells us all about the life of Palestine.”
‘That’s how it started’
The mass protests that have emerged from major Palestinian-American communities in cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago fluctuate, gaining size at times of intense struggle in Palestine.
Sizeable numbers of participants who join these mobilizations and the organizations behind them during moments of pitched conflict may remain engaged for years afterward.
Many, such as the Widdis, became involved during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation which lasted from 2000 to 2005.
“I remember the impact that had on us,” Souphie Widdie told MintPress. “I was still in high school, and I remember I was attending Al-Noor School at the time.”
Al-Noor, an Islamic private school in Brooklyn, graduated many of the city’s Palestine activists.
“My initial exposure to activism was at Al-Noor School,” Souphie said. “I do feel that they facilitate the youth to come out with a voice.”
Eventually, she said, her activities through the school introduced her to a journalist who “gave media training to the community, to some of the prominent figures around now. She motivated me to talk publicly, and to go onto the media at the time, and to tell our story.”
It was these activities, more than her family’s, that spurred her political involvement, Souphie said.
“My father attends protests, but he never actually took us to one, unfortunately. My mother encouraged it when I first started becoming active.”
For her part, Rowayda said, “My first exposure was my older sister, Souphie.”
And growing up in a Palestinian neighborhood had an effect, she added.
“My community, even though they’re not exactly that politicized, that’s how it started. And then from there, I just took it further.”
‘Since I was able to walk’
If the Widdis found political engagement on their own, many others, like Noel Suliman, never had to.
“I used to go to protests since I can remember, since I was able to walk,” the English teacher told MintPress. “My mother was very active, and she attended almost all, if not all, of the protests as I was growing up with my siblings and I.”
Suliman grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, immediately north of Bay Ridge.
She attended the protest in Washington with her 18- and 12-year-old sons and 15-year-old daughter.
“Unfortunately, I stopped going because I was disheartened by no results,” she said. “And I just felt a lot of anger inside of me. I felt a little bitter.”
Her children also caused Suliman to reassess her participation, she added. “Because I became a mother, I had to tame myself and the way I react to Zionists, to people who oppress my people.”
Souphie Widdi would also drift away from smaller and less frequent protests. But both women returned, with thousands of others, during Israel’s 2014 offensive on the Gaza Strip.
Over the years, much about these events had changed, Suliman said. “When I was going earlier, the majority of protesters were Palestinians.”
But some things, like the presence of Zionist counter-protesters, had remained constant.
“I had to catch myself a few times,” Suliman said. “I would react to certain things that the Zionists were saying while we were at the protest. I had to be calmer, and think before I speak and react.”
After the tumult of 2014, her involvement would remain sporadic. But she hoped to remain active, and that her children would as well, she said.
“Now that my kids are older, I think that they should have an opinion. They should make their own narratives. They should be there to see what goes on and to fight for their country.”
‘I have a voice here’
Souphie, now a speech pathologist, had also grown less involved over the years since the Second Intifada, but that changed after the summer of 2014, which brought weekly meetings and near-daily protests.
Ruwayda had meanwhile “found her own path,” Souphie said, joining College of Staten Island, then citywide, chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.
“What made me join SJP in college was the fact that there was no Palestinian presence at CSI,” Ruwayda said. “It just didn’t exist. I would see the Hillel club hosting events all the time.”
A Hillel celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, commemorated by Palestinians as the Nakba, or the catastrophe of the state’s founding and ethnic cleansing of over 650,000 Palestinians, marked a turning point.
“That’s when I decided to go hard and become extremely active,” Ruwayda said.
Today both sisters remain so, involved in Al-Awda New York: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition, as well as Ruwayda’s work with SJP.
“I feel almost privileged that I have a voice here, and I get to use that voice on behalf of the Palestinians who are oppressed in Palestine,” Souphie said.
Suliman hoped for more involvement with future activities, by both herself and ideally her children.
“I still have a burn inside of me that will never die,” she said. “I will fight for Palestine for as long as I live. And I want to make sure that the next generation will do the same thing once I’m done here.”
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