The Challenge to Change in the Gaza Strip
In January 2016 Dina Bseisu hit rock bottom. The accumulation of living a life filled with psychological challenges coupled by the shame of being in such a state, Dina reached a point where she could no longer help herself. This inner turmoil remained well hidden by her renowned reputation cultivated over 25 years in the private banking sector of Geneva, Switzerland, where she addressed the wealth management needs of high net worth clients from the Gulf Region. Yet she knew—continuing on as she waS—meant that all she had worked toward would be for naught if she did not address the wounds within. In facing her own demons, she came to the important understanding that opening to one’s vulnerability is ultimately the path to indomitable strength. Dina reached out for help and received it, turning what she initially viewed as personal failure into her most prominent badge of courage. In Dina’s words: “I finally embraced myself for who I am.”
Dina is of Palestinian and Lebanese origins; her father came from Gaza and her mother from Beirut. Due to the political situation she grew up in the Gulf, where she became a citizen and to where she will soon return to live after so many years in Switzerland.
When she came out of this period of self-exploration and self-acceptance, Dina made the bold decision to turn her pain, suffering, and bravery into something that would benefit other women and girls in her same situation. In December 2014, she founded Challenge to Change (C2C), a platform that helps women find their voice and turn their perceived weaknesses into strength. Challenge To Change focuses on women and girls from the Middle East region and seeks to raise awareness about life and mental health challenges. It also aims to create a platform of support where women can exchange their experiences in a safe environment. It further aims to empower and mentor young women at an important juncture in their lives where the decisions they make could impact them, their families, and their communities.
Within the first year of operation, on December 10, 2016 (International Human Rights Day), Dina and the Challenge to Change team successfully carried out a pilot Big Sister/Little Sister program in the conflict-ridden Gaza Strip. Partnering with Sustain Leadership and Gaza Sky Geeks, both virtually and on the ground, Challenge to Change launched a program addressing the needs of young girls in marginalized societies that she hopes to see duplicated in Beirut, Lebanon; at Birzeit University in the West Bank; and then onto the UAE, Qatar, and other Arab countries.
Heidi Basch-Harod (HBH)—Tell me about the framework and goals of the Big Sister/Little Sister Program that just took place in Gaza City.
Dina Bseisu (DB) —The Big Sister/Little Sister Program is a mentoring and support program connecting experienced professional Arab women with young Arab women (ages 16-25) who may benefit from guidance, coaching, and counseling. The program targets young women who have been impacted by conflict in the Middle East and/or women who face difficult social, emotional, and life challenges.
I had the privilege of opening this inaugural conference in Gaza City and sharing with the participants about my own challenges as an Arab woman living in the West, as a banker in a field usually dominated by men, and about the balancing act I have played as a single mother juggling between the demands of motherhood and a career. It was important for me to show these young women that they have to believe in themselves regardless of these types of obstacles, and strive to “be the change they want to see in their lives.”
As you know the Gaza Strip is located in a marginalized region, and it is very necessary for women and young women in those communities to be involved in initiatives that make them believe they can move forward to a better level of life experience and pursue a career, too. Challenge To Change is the Middle East’s first mental wellness platform for women, so the idea of the Big Sister/Little Sister program is to promote mental well being through a wealth of resources, guidance, mentoring, and structured personal development programs. I am confident that equipping women with life skills and personal growth opportunities will enhance their positive contributions to society as individuals, mothers, and future leaders in the region.
HBH—How were the big and little sisters chosen for this first gathering?
DB—Each interested Little Sister filled out a detailed application that helped my team understand each candidate’s background, which allowed us to choose the participants according to age, education level, and willingness to develop personally, which we demand of those enrolled. Big Sisters also filled out an application that detailed their professional field, life experiences, and willingness to help. We reached out to Big Sisters and Little Sisters through our website, social media channels, personal networks, and partners.
HBH—What kind of commitment are the Big Sisters making to their Little Sisters?
DB—Big Sisters commit to life coaching and personal development. Specifically, they focus on mentoring in objective setting, time management, self confidence, self image, financial planning, priority setting, and other areas in which Little Sisters feel they need coaching.
HBH—Was this first meeting of Big and Little Sisters successful? Were the young women as receptive as you hoped they would be?
DB—The young women who attended the launch in Gaza were excited to be part of the program. However, this Big Sister/Little Sister framework is a new idea in the Middle East and people are not familiar with such programs. Initially, it was evident that the Little Sisters were not feeling comfortable to go deeply into discussion with the Big Sisters. Gradually though, things went more smoothly through the interactive online sessions, which clearly helped to lessen the hesitation of the Little Sisters. The Little Sisters were very excited to e-meet and discuss various topics with women from different parts of the world in varied professional fields. The Big Sisters were very inspired by the Little Sisters and felt more interested in the program after e-meeting them.
Of course, we had to deal with external challenges determined by the situation in the Gaza Strip. Power cuts and connection outages interrupted the online training sessions and communication between the Little Sisters and the Big Sisters, but overall we were able to establish rapport.
I know this was a huge success because we received positive and abundant media attention and coverage. And after the event, we received many applications from women who want to apply for the program events planned for 2017.
HBH—With Big Sisters positioned all around the world connecting via the Internet, who were the people on the ground facilitating the exchange?
DB—Unfortunately, due to the siege, the Big Sisters and I were not able to attend in person. Life in Gaza continues to be plagued by hardship on the day-to-day level, and of course there is a shortage of career and life opportunities. But I am so proud that despite all the challenges young women in Gaza suffer from on a daily basis, C2C is now the only platform providing them with a safe space to express themselves, interact with each other and their Big Sisters, share dreams and frustrations, and build new skills that they will use in various aspects of life.
I have an incredible team in Gaza that consists of Rawan Abu Asad, social media manager and producer; and Sondos Al Qutati, Gaza project coordinator. The Gaza event was also a success due to the hard work of Mona Al Kayali, our project and programs director, who supervised the launch event, albeit remotely from Beirut.
There is also a group of dedicated volunteers there that help with social media campaigns, and general organizational logistics. For this specific program, we partnered with Gaza Sky Geeks, which hosted the Little Sisters at their headquarters in Gaza City. Sustain Leadership partnered with us for this event and will help us continue carrying out programming in 2017.
HBH—That leads me to my next question: What’s the next step of the program? Is there another conference?
DB—In 2017 our goals are to continue mentoring sessions for the Little Sisters in Gaza via the Internet as well as on-the-ground sessions, and to extend this to Lebanon as well with a focus on refugee girls.
HBH—How can our readers get in touch with you and become involved in your work or benefit from it?
DB—I encourage those interested to visit our website, explore our social media outlets, and to be in touch.