From left: Honorees Leymah Gbowee, Ronit Avni and Suhad Babaa with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, executive director of the Daughters for Life Foundation, at a Sept. 16 gala event in Washington D.C. The three women were honored for their peacebuilding work during a fundraising event to support graduate scholarships for Middle Eastern women to study at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. (Photo by Patience Kamau)

Women peacebuilders and ‘a true hero’ honored at gala to support future scholars

Three women working in peacebuilding were honored during a special Daughters for Life Foundation gala dinner on Saturday, Sept. 16 at Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C. to support scholarships for Middle East women to study at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.

The awardees were Leymah Gbowee MA’07, Nobel Peace Prize winner; Ronit Avni, a Peabody Award-winning social entrepreneur and media producer; and Suhad Babaa, the executive director at Just Vision, an organization dedicated to increasing media coverage and support for Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders working for peace.

The Daughters for Life Foundation seeks lasting peace in the Middle East by empowering girls and young women from the region through education, and provides scholarships and awards to study in North America and the United Kingdom. Since the foundation’s inception in 2010, it has helped nearly 400 women further their education.

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‘The balance of our world’

Founder Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s three daughters Bisan, Mayar and Aya were killed in 2009 by Israeli fire in Gaza just four months after their mother died from leukemia. Their lives are memorialized in his memoir I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity (Bloomsburg, 2012).

Women are “the heroines” behind the success of any community, Abuelaish said at the gala. “I know that when we all come together as men and women, elders and children, all people, for the good of all people, women are the balance of our world. Women are the only hope this world has to rise up and reach its greatness.”

Daughters for Life scholars will be able to earn master’s degrees in conflict transformation or restorative justice at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, which boasts over 600 alumni working in 78 countries.

EMU president Susan Schultz Huxman voiced a “tremendously appreciative” thanks to the supporters of EMU’s peace education, adding that Abuelaish’s book is “one of the most fragile and inspiring stories I have ever, ever heard.”

Affirming the invaluable role of women peacebuilders

The award recipients each thanked Abuelaish for his work, and noted the importance of women in peacebuilding efforts around the world.

Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, social worker and women’s rights advocate. She is founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa and a distinguished residence scholar at the Union Seminary in New York. She called Abuelaish “a true hero. Thank you for taking those girls, transforming their lives, by bringing to light what was already in them.”

Gbowee also had a broader message for her fellow awardees as well as for everyone present. “As long as we sit back or hide the great work that women are doing in every community, the definition of a world will always be a wicked place. But I know deep down in my heart that there are more good people on this earth than evil people, and we have to dare to bring it out.”

“This is a moment of celebration,” she said, “but it’s also a moment of reflection, a time for us to stop and ask ourselves, ‘Do we just want to stop where we are? Or, do we want to push?’ We have a challenge, not just for the three of us who have received this award, but for every individual in this room, to elevate the work that women are doing everywhere around the world.”

Ronit Avni founded and for over a decade was the executive director of Just Vision, which creates films, digital media and public education campaigns to raise awareness and support for Palestinian and Israeli civilians working to build a future of freedom, dignity and equality for all.

The organization, she said, rose out of “an awareness that voices like yours [Abuelaish’s] need to be heard: People who don’t denigrate or subjugate or build physical or psychological walls between people, people who would rather agitate without arms for equality, safety and freedom than teach their daughters and sons to hate. These are the role models we need to learn from and support.”

She acknowledged the sadness of Abuelaish’s losses, adding the idea of her own three-year-old daughter’s absence is “unimaginable.”

“It’s my daughter who reminds me that my experiences as a parent are bound up in the hardships and joys of all of humanity,” she said. “It’s because of her that I can walk down the street anywhere in the world and see another parent and exchange knowing smiles as one of us tries to lug a child in one arms, and grocery bags in another one.”

Avni is now developing Localized, an online platform that connects “successful diaspora professionals” with university students seeking career guidance.

Awardee Suhad Babaa is Avni’s successor as executive director at Just Vision. She previously was the organization’s director of programming, and said that storytelling can “shape the way that we understand pressing issues of the day, and transform the way that we think about and respond to those issues.”

In the face of change, in communities faced with tough questions in the face of “deep political failure,” in “long-term movements for dignity and for justice,” she said, the “power of narrative … holds true for issues across the globe and right here in our backyards, right here in the United States.”

“As the struggle in Israel and Palestine continues today,” she added, “I can’t thank you more for the award tonight, and for the recognition. But may it be a tribute to the Palestinians and Israelis, the human rights defenders, community organizers, activists, and journalists, who despite all odds, resist the notion that the world as it is will always be, and instead hold up a vision for not only what is possible, but what is already underway.”

“And more importantly,” she closed, “I ask those in this room, those who have gathered here today, to stand with them, to stand with the people, the women, the men, the youth, who are striving for something greater than ourselves. Support them. Champion them, and make sure that they flourish. Thank you so much.”