Soap, Not Soup!

I had just landed in Palestine and was to begin working at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO) as a Zahi Khouri Fellow. I was overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity, but was nervous and unsure of what to expect during my tenure at the organization. Before I began teaching TYO’s entrepreneurs I was filled with first-day jitters and self-doubt. My fear and hesitation quickly blossomed into one of the most positive and enriching experiences I have ever had while traveling abroad. Zahi Khouri Fellow Vanessa, alongside Psychosocial Program Manager Suhad with the WISE II participants.

As a Zahi Khouri Fellow, I was tasked with the responsibility of teaching The Women’s Group (TWG) fitness and nutrition courses. TWG is for women residing in refugee camps and disadvantaged neighborhoods in Nablus, with a focus on mothers of children in TYO’s Core Child Program. Classes include health, nutrition, and exercise alongside IT classes.

In addition to TWG, I would also provide intensive Business English and Social Media and IT courses to women participating in the Women’s Incubation Services for Entrepreneurs (WISE) II Program.  WISE II  enhances women-led, small enterprises in marginalized areas of northern Palestine. It is the first of its kind to serve women of northern Palestine who cannot access services offered in Ramallah or other areas.

I had limited experience teaching English, Social Media, or IT upon arrival. Now, I was tasked with the responsibility of facilitating a successful educational experience for TYO’s entrepreneurs. What if they didn’t like me? What if my lessons were boring and uninteresting? What if they left feeling as though the classes were a waste of their time? Fortunately, TYO believed in me. Additionally, my experience building community-based infrastructure with Palestinian and Iraqi refugee women in the United States would help inform my classroom time with the WISE II entrepreneurs. Rather than mire myself with worry, I decided to enter the classroom with enthusiasm, excitement, and determination.

Equipped with three weeks of lesson plans, I entered class expecting the women to bring an ample amount of sass, brilliance, and personality. The women brought that and so much more. For three weeks, the women pushed themselves and each other to learn conversational English that they will undoubtedly use while promoting and running their businesses. Some of the subjects we covered included how to properly pronounce words associated with their businesses, how to speak in formal English about their business over the phone and in person, and how to craft and articulate a business pitch. We often erupted in roars of (loving) laughter when one of the women just couldn’t grasp the pronunciation of a difficult word or when many of the women would refer to their “soup” business instead of her “soap” business.

Many of the entrepreneurs had one and a half hour commutes in order to get to our center yet always came to class with dogged determination to tackle the day’s lesson. For their final assignment, the women had to present a business pitch to a mock potential investor. Each woman confidently stood before the class presenting their pitches. I stood and listened, feeling overwhelming pride for the progress the women had made in such a short period of time.

Their final presentations proved to me what I had suspected: upon completion of the three-week class, the women had not only garnered more command over English, but they also gained more self-confidence in themselves, and love and respect for each other.

I have had the pleasure of traveling to Tulkarem and Jenin to visit many of the WISE II entrepreneurs. I felt tremendously honored to have been able to visit the women’s villages and homes, eat their delicious food, and connect with them outside of the classroom. In retrospect, it is hard to believe I was ever nervous about teaching at all.. Together we have built genuine relationships based in mutual respect and I am so honored to have been a small part of these women’s entrepreneurial journeys. I cannot wait to see what the future holds.

Vanessa, Zahi Khouri Fellow