A first generation Palestinian-American, Dania Helou recently graduated with a Masters in Political Science from the University of Memphis. She is a passionate organizer for the Memphis Voices for Palestine group and has worked with numerous local progressive organizations. She describes what initially sparked her engagement in social activism, in particular, her dedication to the liberation of Palestine, and how she remains motivated and inspired to continue advocating for justice.
Interviewed by Ibtihal Malley
Can you give us a brief introduction and tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Dania Helou, I currently work at The Beauty Shop restaurant in Midtown, and I’m an organizer for Memphis Voices for Palestine. I just graduated with a Masters in Political Science where I wrote a 120 page thesis drawing comparisons between the apartheid seen in South Africa and the current situation in Palestine. I talk about the ethno-religious ideologies of the Afrikaner and those upheld by the Zionist movement and compare them from settler-colonial times to the formation of the contemporary state for both South Africa and Israel. I’m currently in the works to publish, although I’ve had some difficulty because unfortunately despite UN reports that reference the clearly discriminatory policies within Israel’s legal framework, the international community is still coming to terms with this reality.
For those who don’t necessarily know about the work you do with the community can you mention some of the organizations you’re involved with and the work you do with them?
I work with a lot of different organizations, I guess I can start chronologically. I first started with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center - I met them during the anti-Iraq and anti-Afghanistan war protests. From there, I’ve worked with Fight for $15, Coalition of Concerned Citizens, Water is Life, Mariposas Collective - I’ve stopped by and volunteered with this group which has helped thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers who have been released at the border - the vast majority of which are children and families, and then Memphis Voices for Palestine of course. With MVP, I work on engaging people with what’s going on in Palestine, celebrating our history and struggle, and giving hope to people that change is going to happen.
What pushed you to pursue organizing for Palestine? When did you realize that such activism was especially important as a member of the broader community? Do you feel as if your personal background has played a major role in pushing for the work that you do?
My personal background has absolutely everything to do with why I do the work that I do. My family moved from the United States back to Palestine for a brief time and then returned to the U.S. During this period of time, the second Intifada broke out so we weren’t able to return for close to seven years. When we were finally able to go back to Palestine, it was pretty traumatic for my siblings and I to see our wrecked apartment and the destruction of a lot of our childhood memories. It was also a pretty big psychological shock because when I lived there as a child I didn’t really know anything about politics so in returning as a teenager, being a lot more politically aware, and being able to understand the implications behind for example, the newly constructed apartheid wall, made it very clear for me how difficult life was for Palestinians. Besides dealing with what has directly affected my family - like my dad witnessing his father get shot and killed in front of his family, or the fact that my mom doesn’t have citizenship or rights to Jerusalem which is the city where she was born and where all of her family reside in - I was also very angry that my peers in middle and high school had absolutely no idea what was going on, that the United States was funding this. I wasn’t planning on going to college - I wanted to graduate high school and join the International Solidarity Movement - which is an activist group known for their hands-on approach of assisting Palestinians and reporting on injustices. That was a track I wanted to go down till I went back to Palestine and I noticed that a lot of my cousins wanted to go to school but were really struggling to and they couldn’t because they had to support their parents. That was a reality check for me because an education is a privilege that I realized I shouldn’t squander - I can’t just be some protester that hangs around, I needed to do something tangible.
With regards to why I do this work, well the answer is two-fold for me. I do it because I don’t feel good not doing anything and because it’s my duty to those who are in Palestine suffering without the means and reach that we have here. From a broader outlook, we have so much legislation that supports Israel and so much money that gets sent in military aid. If you don’t care about Palestine, fine, but you should at least be concerned that the United States is giving a foreign country billions of dollars in aid towards weapons manufacturing, while in our own country there are massive numbers of people lacking health insurance and access to a good education. If you don’t care about the bigger scheme of things you should at least care about the state of the country in which you reside in and how money going elsewhere could better serve communities here that are in need.
Can you tell us a little bit about MVP and the work you guys have done? What are some of the challenges the group has had to deal with?
Prior to MVP’s formation there was a group of individuals from the older generation - a group of Palestinian activists called Friends of Palestine but it dissolved, people moved out, and it didn’t really have the momentum to keep going. MVP, however, was founded in 2014 during the Israeli bombardment on Gaza. Realizing there was an immediate need for a group that would serve the purpose of addressing the crisis and raising awareness here in Memphis, a couple activists got together and brainstormed the name and goals for this organization and we’ve just grown from there. Our platform organizes around the goal of ending Israeli apartheid and we have endorsed the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. Besides supporting national campaigns, we’ve organized locally by getting people to reach out to their legislators in supporting bills and propositions that are pro-Palestinian. For example, Betty McCollum currently has a bill that is calling on the US to prohibit Israel from using the billions it gets in military aid towards the torture of Palestinian children.
MVP has worked closely with other organizations in the city such as Memphis Feminist Collective, Coalition of Concerned Citizens, Memphis Interfaith Coalition, Midsouth-Peace and Justice Center, Fight for $15, and Black Lives Matter. When Take em Down and Black Lives Matter were taking down the statues of white supremacists, MVP helped marshall these events.
With regards to challenges, people have this false assumption that it’s only high profile individuals like members of council or representatives that people are keeping tabs on which is all so false. Grassroots activists have always been targeted specifically by those in power in order to disenfranchise and discredit the work that we put so much effort into. For example, last year the ACLU of Tennessee filed a lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department which the city of Memphis lost because it was proven that the MPD was using fake Facebook profiles to spy on activists and collect data and information on them, and members of MVP were among some of those that were targeted. All of this political surveillance and intimidation is just another tactic to suppress and chill our voices. Another challenge we’ve faced is this website KeyWiki - which is essentially a blacklist right-wing website that catalogues activists in the Mid-South and Southern region. Similar to Canary Mission, it’ll compile a profile where it attempts to frame activists as these crazy individuals by citing the previous work they’ve done in a negative light - they’ll get information through statements you’ve given to the media, social media profiles, even Facebook events you’ve indicated you’ll be attending. With sites like this, there’s really nothing you can do about it - if your stuff is public then you’ve made yourself available to this sort of surveillance. You just can’t let these forms of suppression deter you because that’s why they exist and what they hope to get at.
How do you feel you best balanced your academics and the activist work you involved yourself in, why is it important for the youth to connect with and be involved with such work?
I’m not going to lie, balancing academics and outside work is tough. At one point in my career, I was going to school full time while working two jobs and still trying the best I could to involve myself in various organizations. Maybe I wasn’t the spearhead of any organization but I was going to events, I was going to rallies - I made sure I dedicated a portion of my time to these collective efforts because attendance and showing support is very important. At the end of the day you don’t know what your presence means to these organizers and individuals who are working really hard and making differences for the community. Even if it’s passing out fliers, signing a petition, or holding up a poster you don’t know what it means to that person who is doing everything they can to bring awareness to their cause. You have to hustle your time. A lot of it was me knowing I didn’t just want an academic career that was filled with the basics - I really wanted to put time into the work that I really believed in.
There’s just a better use to your life than the surface level things that bring us enjoyment whether it be video games or sports or partying. Islam teaches us that you should stand up for someone when you see them suffering Yes this life is hard, but if we can just make it a little bit better on ourselves and on others by standing up for what’s right then we have to go down that path. You don’t want to be that person that only chased after the dunia - don’t be fooled by the material because everything is temporary.
What are some of your own personal goals or achievements, what inspires you and keeps you motivated?
Well, number one: the liberation of Palestine, of course. You have to believe that that’s going to happen, it’s just going to come through incremental stages. It’s not going to be a drastic paradigm shift but slowly we’ll get there, which is why the day by day work is so important. Even if it doesn't happen within my lifetime I know I’m not going to be the person that didn’t do anything because of the thought or possibility that our end goal isn't going to be achieved. I’d rather fight and struggle every single day even if it’s meaningless then to not have done anything at all. I also keep myself motivated because I know we’re on the right side. When I protested the AIPAC conference and I saw the attendees that were there - this certain demographic that was mostly white and wealthy - and when you compare that to the pro-Palestinian side, we have a history of tremendous legendary people that have supported the Palestinian cause: Malcolm X, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Marc Lamont Hill, James Baldwin - these extraordinary minds who we look up to and are also supporting this cause. Palestine is not just a Muslim or Arab issue - it’s an international issue caused by western powers. Zionism began as a Eurocentric project and it continues to represent western imperialism and its goal of advancing and extending western control over the region - making it all the more important that we understand and present it keeping that in mind. Besides knowing that truth is on our side, there have also been so many opportunities that have come out of involving myself in this work. I’ve met people that I never thought I would meet and I’ve been able to host events with incredible scholars and academics. I’m not afraid to speak out and I’m not afraid to call out people’s toxic way of thinking. It’s also incredibly self-gratifying when people come up to you and tell you that you’ve changed their mind or exposed them to the side of truth - it’s beautiful and definitely keeps me going.
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice that you’d like to share with readers who want to do similar work as you in their future?
Do what you think is right in your heart and do what makes you proud. I was also really blessed to have older mentors in my life to guide me so that is definitely something I would seek out. Utilize your life in action that makes you proud and happy, because in staying true to yourself, that will never steer you wrong. You can’t live for other people and you definitely have to take care of yourself. Self-care and mental health are very important and seeking that kind of mental health is absolutely crucial and there’s no shame behind it. This kind of work is hard - it’s hard to see people suffer on a regular basis so taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of others. It just means you are putting aside that same time to respect and love yourself.
Get connected with Dania:
Phone Number: 901-428-5774
Contact Memphis Voices for Palestine through their Facebook page or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org