Palestinian Quaker a comfortable minority at BYU

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Mai Zaru grew up as a Quaker living in Palestine under Israeli occupation. She was born in Jerusalem and lived in Ramallah, amid violence and never-ending chaos, yet her experiences have not tarnished her outlook on life. She continues to seek the good in life and find light amid the darkness.

Thriving as a minority by connecting with others

Choosing to come to BYU was difficult for Mai, but she felt strongly that it was the place for her as she looked at her options. She appreciated BYU’s diverse education and the challenges of being a minority. Not only does BYU have a wide variety of majors, but it also allows Mai to experience a completely different environment and gain new experiences.

Mai Zaru, left, poses with Cosmo after hiking the Y. (Mai Zaru)

Mai said she is expanding her knowledge at BYU by bridging the gap between her religion and others. Mai shared her beliefs and answered questions about her religion in October 2015 at the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. She identifies as a Christian and believes that “there is that of God in everyone.” “We don’t have a creed and (we) believe that the word of God is written in our hearts,” Mai said. “We are led by the light and the guidance of the Spirit.”

She knows she is a minority at an LDS Church-owned school, but she embraces the opportunities to learn about a new culture. Mai has actively sought to understand the culture that surrounds her by attending family home evening, visiting teaching, helping out in Relief Society and participating in other elements of Mormon culture. She doesn’t mind being surrounded by Mormon colleagues. She encourages them to pursue their faith and find common ground with others.

“I don’t want to push people away because I am of a different religion; instead I would like to inspire them to become intermingled and interconnected with others of different cultural and religious backgrounds as that of myself,” Mai said. “I’m not going to isolate myself since there are no other Quakers on campus; I want people to get to know me for who I am.”

As a Quaker in Palestine, Mai has always been part of a minority. She was part of the only Quaker family in Palestine, she said, but different international groups would “stop by for worship on their visit to the holy land.”

Making service a lifestyle

Growing up, Mai’s grandmother taught her about other religions. The more she learned about them, the more she appreciated and accepted them. She saw the good in the cultures and people she interacted with.

“I always look at the positive things in life and seek to find the light in all people,” Mai said. She also creates a positive influence by helping others.

Mai Zaru spends time with her friends with disabilities from her hometown in Palestine. (Mai Zaru)

When Hillary Christensen, Mai’s American Heritage teaching assistant, injured her ankle and was in severe pain, Mai skipped a class to visit Christensen at the Student Health Center to make sure she was OK.

Mai’s Quaker upbringing taught her to help those around her. Mai volunteered at a senior citizen home in Palestine, cooking meals with residents and listening to their stories. She also helped children with Down Syndrome realize that they are special as she went bowling and attended parties with them.

“Supporting the elderly and children of need gave her life great meaning in all the chaos around her,” Waleed said.

Working with disabled children in Palestine led Mai to major in Special Education, which fuels her love of service. “BYU asked us to do 12 hours of service, but I did 40 because I couldn’t stop,” Mai said. “I just love this.”

She serves because helping others makes her happy. “She is always willing to help me with anything I need,” said Aitana Alapa, Mai’s freshman roommate.

Prioritizing learning amid war

As a child, helping others and dedicating herself to school work were two ways that Mai dealt with the violence surrounding her. Mai was eager to learn, though attending school was a challenge at times. The school was often closed because of bomb threats by Israeli soldiers. The students would have to leave the building any way they could.

But despite the frequently closed schools, the students wouldn’t stop learning. When schools were closed they would all gather together and hold an informal school. All students were welcome, even if they came from different schools. Teachers from the neighborhood came and taught. Though the tanks and bomb threats frightened them, none lost hope. Their broken lives found solace in coming together to learn.

“We had people who would take their books to checkpoints and just sat there next to the Israeli soldiers and gave lectures there,” Mai said. Attending school next to checkpoints wracked Mai’s nerves as well as many others in attendance. Every day they lived in a delicate balance between life and death.

Palestinian students fought Israeli occupiers by protesting and throwing rocks. Mai encouraged students to negotiate and use other means of protest rather than violence, but it became increasingly difficult for many students to handle. Thousands of Palestinians were dying and the more people that were lost, the more hopeless the situation seemed. The empty desks of classmates reminded the students of the constant threat of death.

While Mai deeply believes in non-violence, it was hard at times for her to maintain her beliefs. “I struggled to be inwardly non-violent as well as outwardly non-violent,” she said. Mai said one of her friends was fatally shot three times by an Israeli soldier. She cried herself to sleep many nights because of the pain and bloodshed she was forced to witness.

To deal with the violence surrounding her, Mai wrote poems. She still writes about her homeland, her beliefs and the injustice of living under occupation, but she also uses poetry as a form of resistance. Speaking her mind and letting all of her thoughts and feelings flow into her poems helped her cope with the violence she encountered.

“To resist is to exist, and to exist is to persist, and to persist is to desist the occupation,” Mai said.

Loving a conflict-filled home

Mai didn’t grow up celebrating her birthdays with cake or presents. Her sixth birthday and others came with fear and tanks surrounding her home.

Fear was common for Mai while living in Palestine. For several years, she and her sister were unable to sleep alone in their room or in their pajamas because they might have to leave at any moment. When tanks were in their area they would go downstairs and hide for hours at a time in case Israeli tanks bombed their area. Mai constantly worried about losing her family.

It became a habit for 7-year-old Mai to raise her arms for her father to carry her away to safety. Even on calm nights when her parents came into her room to check on her, she would still raise her arms.

In the summer of 2015, Mai visited her home and family. While the visit rejuvenated her, she struggled seeing the problems again.

“It was painful to witness the death of loved ones, to be followed by Israeli jeeps and be interrogated at checkpoints,” she said. “It is getting worse year by year due to the increase of Israeli violence, the obliviousness of many around the world, and the marginalization of human rights when it comes to Palestinians.”

Mai Zaru rides a camel while visiting Jerusalem this past summer. (Mai Zaru)

Going home made her realize that she needed to raise awareness about Palestine’s situation. She wrote 37 poems in the Fall 2015 semester to give herself and others strength to overcome the violence. The poems allow her to move past the issues and show that she still cares about Palestine, even though she is thousands of miles away.

“I feel like being home inspired me to write more because I can’t do much being so far away,” Mai said.

Despite the challenges and hardships in Palestine, she plans to go back and live there. “Many Palestinians think that when someone leaves Palestine, they won’t come back, but not me,” Mai said.

Mai started a blog since coming to the states to keep in touch with family and friends back in Palestine.

She plans to take advantage of the opportunities living in the United States offers and learn as much as she can to go back and share what she has learned to make Palestine, her home, a better place to live in.

She hopes that one day the conflict will be resolved and she can live in peace in Palestine.

“As long as a Palestinian’s heart beats, there is hope, for our heart beats for Palestine,” Mai said. “Even if everyone says there isn’t hope, I can’t say that because it’s my country, and even if there wasn’t hope, we will resist and create our own hope. Giving up is not an option — never was and never will be.”

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