Rana Abdelhamid, a student at Middlebury College who is a Truman Scholar and Pickering Fellow, will receive the Leo Nevas Youth Advocate for Human Rights Award for raising awareness of the UN and human rights mechanisms. Growing up in New York City to Egyptian parents, Abdelhamid became interested in the issue of gender-based violence both in Egypt and in her local community in Queens. As a black belt in Karate, she founded the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE), a self-defense, leadership and entrepreneurship program for young Muslim women that has engaged hundreds of young women through its summer fellowship and mentorship programming and is establishing chapters across the U.S.
At fifteen my family and I took a trip to Egypt that opened my eyes. There, I saw whitening creams forced on my younger cousins. Billboards conveyed cryptic messages on female genital cutting. I learned of abusive marriages and saw scars on arms. At the same time, I met young Egyptian women who moved mountains. I found inspiration and pride, embraced the soft R in my name and chose to wear hijab.
When I returned to the U.S. I was inspired to become more involved in my community and started volunteering at a domestic violence organization. One day, on my way to the organization, as I walked down the streets of NYC, I felt a tug at my hijab. As I shrugged this off, I felt another, more forceful, tug. I turned around and was met with hateful piercing eyes. I tried to process what was happening. He was trying to take off my hijab. Overwhelmed with emotion, I rushed away as quickly as possible. That night, I thought about the hate I saw in the eyes of this man, the violence victims I worked with and my female family members in Egypt. I reflected on this moment and found an energy that was inspired by the resilient women I had met who stayed strong in the face of adversity.
A year later, at 17, I found the strength to start the Women's Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE), a self-defense, leadership and entrepreneurship program for Muslim girls in New York City. Within the past five years, we have engaged hundreds of participants across the country, and our program has become a yearlong course in a girls’ school in Queens, NY. Our fellowship and mentorship models provide our participants with the opportunity to challenge themselves through leadership opportunities and trainings. Our annual social enterprise competitions empower young women to critically think about and develop sustainable programs to address issues they see in their communities. Though my experience with WISE, I gained an incredible skillset, connected with powerful young women and developed insightful relationships with local organizations.
Today Malala Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her education advocacy, even after being shot in the head by the Taliban. Her strength in the face of injustice has been remarkably refreshing and inspiring. As young people, often times, challenges can feel daunting, however as Yousafzai has demonstrated, it is important to turn challenges into opportunities for empowerment. Whether its through involvement with the UNAUSA or with a local community organizations, our time to make change, as youth, is right now and we have so many tools to do so. As this year’s recipient of the Leo Navas UNAUSA Youth award, I would like to send a message through a quote by Malala Yousafzai:“The important thing is to always ask the world to do some things. But sometimes they cannot be done, so you have to take a stab and you have to do them.”