Alumna Inspires Palestinian Girls to Rise Above

Jessica Saba's Girls Rise group doing an art project in Palestine.

Jessica Saba wakes up in the middle of the summer of 2011 and knows she is in harsh conditions.

There is trash all around, spilled water, overcrowded living spaces and barefoot children running between alleys. The unemployment rate is 43 percent. There are huge concrete walls about 26 feet tall with watchtowers on the tops. The only opening in the wall is for military vehicles and tanks to pass through.

She walks through this Palestinian refugee camp full of entire families and the ever-looming threat of war and violence -- and knows that she is where she needs to be.

Through her program Girls Rise, Saba, MSW ‘15, is helping to empower and educate Palestinian girls within the state’s main city of Bethlehem who have been affected by poverty and war every day.

Under Saba’s leadership, the program primarily facilitates what she calls a “youth-led action research process,” a method that trains girls ages 11 to 16 as researchers by giving them the opportunity to study social problems that affect them and their communities. Through this methodology, the girls undertake the process of identifying, investigating and collectively working to resolve these problems.

“They are so resilient -- it’s so sad that all of their traumatic experiences [with the military conflicts in the region] have become normalized for them,” Saba said. “Just having girls to support each other, to do things that are fun, to do things that make them realize they have a sense of purpose...I think it would really make a difference for youth in other areas as well. To have an adult hear them and their opinions be valid is life-changing.”

Starting down a path

Saba’s journey to Palestine started back in Los Angeles with a life-changing event. During the fall of her junior year in high school, Saba lost her father, who helped to instill Palestinian culture and values in her at an early age, to a year-long fight with brain cancer.

Her father’s passing not only changed her family dynamic but also Saba’s career path.

She originally aspired to be a doctor to help those in need in third-world countries, but because of the traumatic experience of being in the hospital watching her father battle cancer, Saba decided to pursue a different career in public service.

“I would not have started Girls Rise if my dad had not passed. By going to Palestine and volunteering there, it was a way for me to honor his legacy,” she said.

But not everyone in her family saw it that way.

“My family is old fashioned. Especially as a young woman, I’m not supposed to be moving out of the house until I get married,” Saba said. “It was a battle for me to go to college at UC Berkeley; everyone in my family got involved and said, ‘You shouldn’t go. Your dad wouldn’t have wanted you to go.’ I felt a lot of guilt, [but] it was the best thing that ever happened. I really grew out of my shell.”

Girl rising

During her time at UC Berkeley, Saba joined Students for Justice in Palestine and learned a great deal about activism from her trip to Bethlehem in 2011.

“What stood out to me was the Palestinian youth and how they have become so apathetic because they’ve grown up under a military occupation -- that’s all they know,” Saba said. “They have lost hope in seeing a change in their environment. There is so much apathy and hopelessness in the youth, when that’s when they usually have all the positivity and hope. That kind of stuck with me.”

Undeterred, in the spring of 2013, Saba spoke to directors of organizations in Bethlehem as a part of an elective course in peace and conflict studies she was taking at the time.

After securing a partnership with a local cultural arts organization called Alrowwad Cultural and Arts Society, Saba won a $25,000 grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust to complete her service project at a refugee camp that holds a special place in her family’s history.

“I got resistance from my family once again who were afraid of me going for such a long time -- and it can be dangerous there,” Saba said. “I called my grandmother, my dad’s mom. I was so nervous about telling her. It turns out she had been a teacher at that refugee camp for 25 years with the United Nations. I’m a person that believes in signs…[and] that was a sign that I was supposed to do this.”

Getting off the ground

As a part of the grant she received, Saba began with an 8-month program in October 2013 with subsequent 5-week programs every summer since.

“For the first year, the girls identified poverty as the main issue they wanted to focus on. With other religious areas in Bethlehem, that’s why tourists come and that’s the main source of income,” she said. “When there’s violence in the area tourists stop coming, and the economy really suffers. We were thinking that Bethlehem needs factories to produce something so that no matter what happens people can have jobs.”

Girls Rise took that idea and implemented it on a smaller scale. They created cooking packages that were sold in a local gift shop that included ingredients for a typical Palestinian breakfast: a cup of tea, bread, olive oil and za’atar (a dip made out of thyme, sesame seed, sumac and salt). They even sourced the components of the packages from local vendors to show their support for the local Palestinian economy.

The funds collected from the packages were used the following summer to support the program’s field trips and other empowering activities. In addition to action research, Girls Rise travels to to the dead sea, Palestinian universities, Hebron and Abraham’s tomb. They also have activities such as dance, art, skateboarding, photography and yoga, and feature inspirational female speakers.

At the end of the program, Saba conducts an interview with each girl and her mother, assessing the efficacy of the experience.

“The girls are now more confident and self-expressive. They’re increasing their social consciousness about what’s going on in society, what they can do to change it. They’re having positive self-images,” Saba said. “[The program] can have positive effects for themselves and their community.”

New heights

With the benefits she has seen Girls Rise bring to Palestine, Saba is hopeful for the implementation of the program stateside.

As a psychiatric social worker with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Saba provides therapy for students on a daily basis and has noticed the need for a program like Girls Rise in Los Angeles.

“One thing that I tell people is that I’ve seen change in the girls, I’ve seen what they’ve done, and I’m proud of them,” Saba said. “I love the girls I work with, I’ve gained so much from them. I don’t think I could have chosen a better summer vacation.”