“The first time I was offered a cigarette was by a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee named Odayee in a refugee camp right out of Nablus called New Askar,” says 21-year-old RJ Khalaf, founder of LEAD Palestine.
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Khalaf comes from a long line of Palestinians. His grandparents moved to the United States in 1964. When Khalaf was 10, he visited Palestine for the first time.
“I went there not knowing there was a place called Israel, not knowing there was an occupation, not knowing everything that has gone on there for decades,” he said.
Three years later, he went back to volunteer at his uncle’s summer camp in Palestine, and it was here that he began to imagine his own summer camp program.
LEAD Palestine is an initiative that aims to empower, motivate and inspire the next generation of Palestinian youth. Founded by two NYU undergraduate students, Khalaf and Hannah Benson, LEAD Palestine is a leadership camp for seventh- and eighth-graders living in New Askar, the refugee camp where Khalaf was offered his first cigarette almost a decade ago.
“Leadership empowers individuals,” reflected Khalaf. “If you can take an individual from having an external locus of control — one that allows them to look at their situations around them and think, ‘There’s nothing I can do about this’ — then you have hopelessness. But if you can empower them with an internal locus of control — a belief that they can do something to address some of the issues around them — that’s powerful.”
LEAD Palestine has a three-pillar approach.
The first pillar consists of a summer day camp that will launch Aug. 14 of this year. The week-long camp entails leadership-based activities and workshops led by born-and-raised Palestinian university students.
“They know what it’s like to grow up in that area and can speak to these kids at a level that you and I cannot,” Khalaf said.
Through these kinds of workshops, the camp aims to increase self-awareness and mindfulness, build a definition of leadership and spark collaboration, creativity and a general sense of teamwork.
The second pillar of this organization is a mentorship program. Palestinian camp counselors will continue to mentor the students long after the camp has ended and will be given a stipend, to reward them for their work with the youth and to incentivize them to continue to foster these relationships.
The third pillar of LEAD Palestine is the creation of a student council organization within the refugee camp to encourage children to be leaders for themselves and for their community.
“Traditionally, these kids may have thought about leadership solely as a form of authority,” Khalaf said. “These leaders look like the president of Palestine or of the United States, and these kids don’t fit into that category of leadership.”
This is especially true for young women in the camp, who hardly fit the traditional image of an old, male leader.
“We can propose a different idea of leadership that is inclusive and that they can buy into, one that focuses on self-awareness and emotional intelligence, being a leader for yourself and building an inclusive community,” Khalaf explained.
LEAD Palestine recently reached its fundraising goal with the support of the NYU Liberal Studies’ program the NYU Office of Civic Engagement and the organization’s GoFundMe page.
Though funding is now in place, LEAD Palestine still faces challenges. Bureaucratic obstacles prevented the organization from working in the Gaza Strip, the place where they had hoped to set up camp.
“This was one of the biggest pills I had to swallow,” Khalaf said. “The Gaza Strip is where there are the worst problems and where there are the most unmet needs.”
LEAD Palestine had to relocate its programs to New Askar.
“What we hope is that in 10 years when these kids are the professionals — the activists, the business leaders, the teachers and the parents in their community — we hope that they have this foundation of ethical leadership that can help them address some of the problems they might face,” Khalaf said.
LEAD Palestine believes kids need to have a space and an opportunity to cultivate these skills.
“Kids are not born leaders,” Khalaf said. “Leaders are made.”
A longer version of this article was written for NYU Local as part of Impact Journalism Day, an initiative spanning over 20 schools from the around the world that showcases college students’ work on social and environmental problems. To mark Impact Journalism Day, The Daily is featuring stories from other participating college and university newspapers.