Nisreen Alyan: We are not all one

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel
Civil and Human Rights 

Meet four incredible individuals driving some of the New Israel Fund of Canada’s projects this year and blazing trails for inclusion, for equality, and for social change: Batya Kahana Dror, Edan Ring, Ghebrehiwot Tekle, and Nisreen Alyan. Click here to read part one of their stories.

Who is Nisreen Alyan?

When Nisreen Alyan was in the fifth grade, during the First Intifada, a tear gas grenade landed in her East Jerusalem private school. Fearing for her safety, her parents immediately transferred her to the local school in Beit Sefafa, an Arab town along Israel’s Green Line, with territory in both East and West Jerusalem. 

“I told my parents that it wasn’t a good school, I wanted to leave. But it was the First Intifada. They said, ‘There is nowhere for you to go.’”

After junior high, Alyan refused to continue at the local high school. “That school didn’t prepare anyone for university.” An outstanding student, she was able to transfer to a different high school in West Jerusalem. One of only two Arabs there, she suffered abuse from day one. Her schoolmates wouldn’t speak to her. Children stole from her, and groups of pupils attacked her as she walked home. Signs reading “Death to Nisreen” and ”Dirty Nisreen” graced the schoolyard. 

I was in a kind of euphoria of, ‘We are all one.’ They made me understand that we are not”

Everyday, she came home crying. “I asked my parents, ‘What is an Arab?’” In the neighbourhood she’d grown up in, Alyan had always played with Jewish children. She’d felt no real difference between them and herself.

What’s inspired her?

That experience of suddenly being an outsider, fostered in Alyan a desire to prove to others that “despite the difficulties, I would succeed.”

Looking back, she said, being bullied for being an Arab, was a pivotal life experience, because it strengthened her Palestinian identity. “It made me strong. Before this, I was in a kind of euphoria of, ‘We are all one.’ But at [that school], they made me understand that we are not.”

How has she changed Israeli society?

After high school, she started volunteering, and later working, at B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. She immersed herself in the issues concerning life in the occupied West Bank. Information she’d helped gather on torture reached the courts. “It opened my eyes. I had found my calling.” 

Alyan spent two years working as a Parliamentary assistant to Israeli Arab MK Mohammad Barakeh, closely following Supreme Court decisions on equality for Israeli Arabs and women, and against the use of torture. She decided to get a law degree.  

“It upset me so much to realize I’d been living in a middle class bubble”

After law school, she applied to an opening at The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), in the Arab minorities department. She was told she didn’t have enough experience, but ACRI wanted instead to offer her a job doing field work on conditions in East Jerusalem. She was upset to learn about the community’s high poverty and crime rates, plus peoples’ lack of rights. “I was shocked at the severity of the situation of people who live minutes from my home. It upset me so much to realize I’d been living in a middle class bubble.”

Written and reported by Ruth Mason.

Meet three other trailblazers who are working to make Israel a better, fairer, more equal place. Click here to read part one of their stories.

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