Growing up in the West Bank, Hammad’s daily commute to school was punctuated by pedestrian check points which left him feeling subhuman, every single day. He moved to the U.S. at 16, but the plight of Palestinian refugees, particularly youth growing up in crowded camps void of hope and peace, stayed with him. He co-founded Inspire Dreams with an Iranian-American Jewish classmate and an Asian-American classmate in order to provide academic, athletic, and arts-based programs in these camps, where over 50% of the population is eighteen years old or younger. Through Camp “I Have a Dream,” English courses, and other workshops, over 1,000 young Palestinians have received resources to forge brighter futures for themselves. Said one camper of her experience, “Someone asked me what my dream was and showed me ways of making it true."
We caught up with Hammad to talk about what inspired him to start Inspire Dreams and the advice he gives to other young leaders.
DoSomething.org: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?
Hammad Hammad: I was born in Jerusalem and lived the formative years of my life in the West Bank. I grew up in a village near Ramallah and did not learn about the conflict as much as I lived it. In 2000, I will never forget that I had to evacuate my school since it was bombed. My classmates and I were terrified, but were good at hiding it. It was not a show of strength; we simply understood that fear has no place in a society where the absence of gunshot sounds is unusual. An Israeli had been killed outside of my school, and the Israeli army planned to bomb the area in retaliation. In this uneasy atmosphere, politics inevitably penetrated my classroom and changed my life.
I moved to the U.S at 15, and on a visit back to Palestine in 2007, I visited a refugee camp for the first time. I was shocked at the living conditions and lack of opportunity in the camp, and the fact that I had never even known about the level of issues involved. I met with young Palestinians and discussed prospects for the future, focusing on their personal lives and stake, and was moved by their sobering assessment of the reality they face and the absence of hope in their outlook. It was at that point I began to think of ways to contribute so that they are able to have opportunities that changed my life, including the opportunity to pursue an education. I spent the following year brainstorming with classmates and leaders in the refugee camps about the idea for a camp that teaches these youth the skills and philosophies of action that will transform their dreams into reality. The ideas and entrepreneurial spirit are ever present in Palestinian youth, but often suffocated by the realities on the ground. Through this program, I hoped to offer a catalyst for change, providing these young people with the resources to gain an agency over their future they have never previously been afforded.
DS: How do you feel about it now?
HH: I think the key to peace between Palestine and Israel will begin in the refugee camps. There are currently seven million Palestinian refugees around the world, and they represent the longest lasting and largest refugee population in the world. The younger generation in the camps is extremely interested in peace, and, by witnessing globalization and modernization through satellite television and the internet—many young Palestinian refugees do not want to be kept on the sidelines. Instead, they want to shape the future by developing the skills necessary for long lasting peace to exist. I hope to contribute to this through our programming by offering the youth the skills to do this.
DS: What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?
HH: The first day of Camp “I Have a Dream,” there was a shooting at a community center (due to internal conflicts) near where we were going to work in the refugee camp. I remember sitting in the room with Indra and Rod (the co-founders) discussing whether to cancel the camp or not. We decided to not only stay, but to move into the refugee camps to be closer to the communities, village elders, parents, and children we worked with. We were cognizant of our safety, but this was the atmosphere we wanted to combat if we wanted to create a better future and environment for the kids to live and grow in. It was a critical point and we decided to move forward, and today we are proud of where we stand.
DS: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?
HH: Absolutely the youth we work with. Every time I am in the camps, I feel home. The people greet and welcome us with excitement and energy that makes all the hard work worth it. It is the partners on the ground. Reuniting with Orabi, Naji, Bilal and Muhanad. It is the young girl that wants to show us her improved grades. The young man who wants to show us the latest break dancing moves that he developed on Youtube after being introduced to it through Camp “I Have a Dream.” They give me the energy to work harder, because seeing their success is at the core of what Inspire Dreams is about.
DS: Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?
HH: When we returned in 2009, it actually hit us what the previous summer meant to the refugee community. We were literally greeted in the streets by packs of kids as word spread of our arrival. Red shirts that we gave to participants in 2008 began cropping up everywhere. In Jalazon, Maryam – a camper from 2008 and traumatic burn victim – took us by the hand and led us to her home. She showed us pictures she had taken since the photography workshop last year. She then turned and said, “It’s the first place I’ve been where no children were hit. It’s the first place I’ve been where someone asked me what my dream was, then listened, and showed me ways of making it true. Before, to me, responsibility meant doing chores, after ‘Camp I Have a Dream’ it meant taking control of my life.” That was a moment that I realized, wow, we are actually making a difference.
DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?
HH: There were many roadblocks to the work we were doing. There were roadblocks related to funding, security, partners, conflict, and politics. I was questioned in the US as a Palestinian and in Palestine as an American. People were initially suspicious of why I was interested in working in the camps. On the ground, we work within a society that is unsure of tomorrow, where the tendency to be totally preoccupied with the present has limited the ability to ponder the future. When we started, the youth we work with were often confused when asked what their “dreams” are, rather than their preferred occupations. But, unexpectedly, as we grew, it was the peer counsellors and parents had a more difficult time accepting our philosophy. Reflecting on the possibility of the future was sometimes perceived as betraying the past. These intangible barriers often limited us just as much as the concrete ones built at the city’s edge and the checkpoints between the major cities.
DS: What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?
HH: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to include everyone in the refugee camps. Facilitating social change need not be didactic. The very process of collaboration, and of inclusion, is more often than not the key ingredient to success. For Inspire Dreams, involvement and contribution transform partners into stakeholders. When the community is invested, our potential for making an impact grows exponentially. An idea, plan, or project – no matter how groundbreaking – will amount to little until the feeling of ownership is extended to our participants, their parents, local government officials, and our interns. The results achieved may be different than what we may have initially envisioned, but that’s a good thing, a very good thing.
DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?
HH: I’ve always been surprised most by the enthusiasm and reactions of our partners on the ground. But, it’s more than “Hey, what you are doing is much appreciated.” It’s more along the lines of “Wow, now how can we take this to the next level? How do we double our capacity and scope for next summer?” To be precise, it’s that ‘we’, the ‘our’, that captures the zeal of the community and transforms a project launched by three college grads into a camp-wide effort. At the end of the day, all you have as an NGO in Palestine is your reputation, and it’s been incredibly moving to see how many individuals, students, and leaders from the refugee camps have staked their reputations as well for our cause and our work.
DS: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?
HH: It’s essential to have a strong foundation built by a support team coming from a range of backgrounds. Inspire Dreams’ volunteer base consists of 30+ individuals—it’s a truly a team effort. For me, it starts with my family, which has provided me with a strong moral compass and the courage to pursue this course. In addition, the other two co-founders have been with me from day one. We use our individual strengths—whether it’s budgeting, program creation, or teaching youth—to complement one another and address our operational needs.
Our work is deeply rooted in the refugee camps we work in—so we regularly communicate, coordinate, and collaborate with teachers, parents, and village elders in the refugee camps we work in. We see them as joint partners and it really has given Inspire Dreams a strong foundation. Two of my former professors, Ambassador Schneider and Dr. Murphy, have provided me sage advice from day one—whether it was about applying for a grant to physically living in the refugee camp. Friends have advertised our programs, fundraised, and even put me in touch with local organizations on the ground and in America that share our vision. Finally, and most importantly, we consult with children in the camps that our programs serve. They are our audience, our inspiration, our driving force—it’s important they get a say for what they want their future to be like.
So my advice is simple: use your drive, passion, and vision to build a network around you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You will have a much larger impact working with others, especially those you hope to benefit. Be open, listen attentively, and be ready to change plans constantly.
It is essential to go in with the attitude that you are there to work with the local community, and not that you are there to “teach” or “help” them. Working with existing organizations and cultural centers and incorporating their ideas and learning from their experiences is essential for your project to work. Don’t replicate efforts. See what works, ask what hasn’t in the past, and work with the local community to identify the best way to fix problems. It will save you a lot of time, trouble and make the project all the more successful.
DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?
HH: Early on, many foundations, former professors, and government leaders that we spoke to about our project questioned the importance of our work. They suggested I tackle a humanitarian cause that was more “popular” and attached to a “Hollywood star,” so I could gain more support and funding. “No one is working in Palestinian refugee camps—and there is a reason for it.” A former high-ranking government official advised us to reconsider traveling to the Middle East. A few people said what we were doing was too controversial and political, and others said we would not have any impact. We were struggling initially to garner support. This caused self-doubt on my part, but I thought to myself, what is controversial with helping youth understand their potential and then realize it? And this is what I am passionate about. I searched in the depths of my heart and this felt right—despite (or perhaps in part due to?) outside opinion.
The one thing I would do differently—approach my work with more confidence and determination from the onset. As a young person, when people older than you express doubt in what you are doing—that can be challenging and a mental deterrent. It’s important to listen and take advice, but you also need to hold on what’s true to you and pursue it tirelessly.
DS: What’s next for your project?
HH: Our strategic goals over the next 5 years focuses on program expansion and higher education attainment. Over the last 4 years, what we have seen is an enormous growth in self-confidence, leadership skills, and academic abilities in the youth we have worked with. We want to work with more kids. As of now, we have worked in six Palestinian refugee camps, and by the end of this summer, we will be in nine. By 2015, we hope to be operating in all 19 United Nations designated refugee camps in the West Bank and offering our programs to 10,000+ youth. In the long term, we hope to also work in Gaza and the camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Additionally, building on these skills, we hope to see these kids attend four-year universities in the West Bank, Middle East, and America. Alongside community members, we recently launched “Lead Palestine,” a college preparatory program that prepares Palestinian refugee youth for the testing, admissions, and application process. Education will allow youth better access to jobs, an opportunity to support themselves and family, and a way to contribute positively to educational and economic development in Palestinian identity. One of our former interns spent a year assisting a 17-year old with the college process—in April he received a full scholarship to Brown University. We hope to replicate this on a larger scale.
Bonus Question: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?
HH: I would say hip hop artist Lupe Fiasco. He is a powerful lyricist. Hip hope music is one of the most popular workshops in Camp “I Have a Dream,” since it allows the youth to express themselves through the combination of poetry and music. In addition, hip hop music is becoming increasingly popular in Palestine, as seen in the Sundance film festival selection “Slingshot Hip Hop,” which followed five Palestinian rap groups from the West Bank and their quest to liberate the Palestinian people through music. Music has great potential for these youth—who witness violence on a daily basis, live in poverty, and are often left voiceless and unheard. Lupe Fiasco embodies this.
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