"The more my parents see me immersing myself in new spaces and places, they learn about how the world isn't really what they think it is. And I'm learning it too." (Brian, Episode 14)
During our time at Michigan State University, Brian Batayeh and I were on the same committee for a certain event that a mutual friend had invited us to help plan, but other than that we didn't interact much. After having interviewing him for the podcast, I feel like I missed out because Brian is an incredibly nice guy with a heart for helping people! Going to college exposed him to different perspectives that enhanced his awareness of race relations, and that made him want to explore more about how race impacts health and well-being. From there, he went on to shape his studies and career around global public health.
The first step was doing an internship in South Africa through an MSU-affiliated organization called Global Youth for Education and Change during the summer between his junior and senior year. He stayed in a township not far from Johannesburg and lived at the center he worked for, spending his days organizing educational and recreational activities for adolescents who had been adversely affected by HIV/AIDS. He had traveled internationally before but this was his first time going to the African continent. He remarked to me that where he was located, he hardly ever saw any white people. In fact, while seen as "brown" here in the States, apparently in South Africa he was considered "white".
While in grad school at Emory University, Brian was based in Beirut, Lebanon for eight weeks doing his practicum. His work focused on refugee health (Palestinian and Syrian), which consisted of office work but also site visits, overseeing smaller community-based organizations and helping them to better serve said refugee populations. In addition to work, he was impressed by how lively a city Beirut is, and he did his best to explore the city and improve his Arabic by conversing with people. After his practicum was over, he spent two weeks visiting family in Palestine. This is something he'd planned to do even before starting his practicum.
Brian's grandparents were the ones who immigrated to the United States, his parents are first-generation Americans, and at first they didn't understand why Brian would want to return to the homeland. But he saw this as an invaluable opportunity to learn more about where he comes from and connect with that part of himself, and once he arrived his family on both sides of the ocean were overwhelmingly supportive. While he did encounter some discriminatory questioning while at the border, he was granted entry. Furthermore, the warmth and love of his family in Palestine overshadowed his preconceptions and whatever signifiers of Israeli occupation he witnessed. Overall, his time there made him feel very proud to be Palestinian-American.
"You can have all the compassion in the world, but you will never really understand what it's like to live where you don't live."
Brian earned his Master's in Public Health from Emory this year and continues to live in Atlanta working in the public health field, with a particular interest in Arab-American communities and the Palestinian diaspora. With all the communities that he has worked and continues to work with, he keeps in mind that compassion cannot usurp lived experience, no matter how good your intentions may be. In his words, "You can have all the compassion in the world, but you will never really understand what it's like to live somewhere you don't live." He does his best to be conscious, not merely as a professional but also as an ally.
Speaking of allyship! Brian messaged me after his interview to tell me about a statue of Nelson Mandela that he saw in Ramallah, Palestine. It was donated by the city of Johannesburg, and he informed me that the base is inscribed with this quote from Mandela: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians." The statue was erected a few years after Brian's stay in South Africa, but what a cool symbol to tie is experiences together, right? Brian can be contacted at (email@example.com).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "A Piece of Home (SOUTH AFRICA/LEBANON/PALESTINE)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Rollins School of Public Health Global Field Experience (Emory University)