Beyond Borders: BCSSW Collaboration Investigates Quality of Life for Palestinian Social Workers

In some ways, social workers in the Palestinian territories are not so different than their colleagues in the United States. They devote their lives to those struggling with pressing, life-altering social problems such as domestic violence and limited access to health care. They’re willing to work long hours for low pay, because they care about building a better community. Often, they give to others before they even begin to think of giving to themselves.

In other ways, though, those in the West can barely begin to understand some of the challenges faced by Palestinian social workers. Sparse financial means, an unstable political environment, and a lack of laws protecting those living at the margins can leave some hamstrung as they endeavor to do their jobs. Nonexistent resources mean that often, social work turns into relief work, where only the poorest of the poor are served, and then, only in terms of receiving access to the most basic human needs. Travel throughout the territories is always slow, and frequently dangerous.

Across the globe, social workers are especially vulnerable to neglecting their own self-care, because they are too focused upon others to worry about themselves. Given the stresses for all who live in Palestine, this reality for social workers in the Occupied Territories is even more heightened.

Often, at the Boston College School of Social Work, we have the opportunity to reflect on our own self-care, and that of our colleagues. This is critically important. Yet, staying true to our School’s mission to serve those living in the most difficult situations in the far corners of our world, we refuse to stop there. We go beyond Chestnut Hill, beyond Boston, and Massachusetts, the U.S., even the West. We go to Palestine, where a unique collaboration of various constituents from Boston College are hard at work to understand the quality of life of social workers living in the West Bank.

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Najwa Safadi, Assistant Professor of Social Work Practice at Al-Quds University, is now finding a way to give back to her fellow social workers, through her current research project, Public Sector Social Workers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Najwa Safadi, Assistant Professor of Social Work Practice at Al-Quds University.

The Palestinian Social Worker

First and foremost, says Najwa Safadi, “I am a social worker.” This reality is reason enough to understand what it’s like to get wrapped up in one’s mission to cure those social ills around you.

“Our vocation calls us to be devoted to helping our clients, and so our concerns lie with them,” she explains. “But too often, we don’t think of our own problems, our own sufferings, our own challenges. And if we are truly going to best serve our clients, we must be our own best selves.”

Of course, where Safadi lives and works, in the Palestinian Territories, these problems, sufferings, and challenges are so much more pronounced than in most of the world; in addition to the usual struggles with low salaries, poor benefits, long hours and poor working conditions that many social workers across the globe must experience, Safadi and her colleagues must negotiate the unstable financial, political, and social realities that come with living in a territory occupied by Israel and marked by almost quotidian acts of violence.

As Assistant Professor of Social Work Practice at Al-Quds University in Abu Dies, Jerusalem Safadi (BCSSW PhD ’12) is now finding a way to give back to her fellow social workers, through the current research project, Public Sector Social Workers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Conducted in collaboration with Boston College Social Work Assistant Professor Scott Easton, the researchers are striving to understand the major challenges faced day in and day out by her colleagues, and then develop interventions to help them to better cope.

Some of the most imminent: scarcity of resources that make it impossible to do one’s job, beyond providing the most basic of needs such as food and water and medical care. Fears for one’s own safety amidst a region in constant turmoil. The stress of seeing so much violence, pain, and destruction, and being able to do little to help can be crushing; often, there is little time, budget, or existing social structure to offer even basic mental health counseling to those who so desperately need it.

But as social workers do, these men and women in Palestine push on, doing the best that they can, and the burden can be great. Safadi understands this; even as she conducts her research, she struggles with some of the very issues she seeks to study. Some days, it takes her hours to negotiate the Israeli armed checkpoints she must pass through to reach her interview subjects. As she moves through her war-ravaged nation, she comes face-to-face with the realities of being overburdened, and trapped with few options.

“Sometimes, I think there are just too many obstacles,” she says.

***

Scott Easton, Assistant Professor of Health and Mental Health at BCSSW

Scott Easton, Assistant Professor of Health and Mental Health at BCSSW

The American Professor

Back in 1989, as a fresh-faced Harvard graduate ready to take on the world, Scott Easton first traveled to the Palestinian Territories to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the First Intifada (Arabic word for “Uprising”). Part of his job as a Rockefeller Fellow in Public Service was to work with Palestinian teens with spinal cord injuries at a rehabilitation center near Bethlehem University. It was there that he developed a wheelchair basketball league with people who had never before met an American; where he befriended Jewish and Arab activists alike who were working towards peace; where he saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the West Bank’s Beit Sahur give his famous Christmas Day speech comparing the plight of the Palestinian people to that of his fellow South Africans; where he first learned how important, how needed was a just, peaceful political solution that offered self-determination and dignity for Palestinians.

“That was over twenty-five years ago now, and what I remember most, is how the friends that I met during my year spent in Palestine asked that I not forget them,” explains Easton. “That I use my position as an American to let the world know just how bad things are there. And ever since, I have tried to find ways to do this through my life and work.”

Most recently, this pledge has revolved around a project with former Boston College student Safadi, a 2012 graduate of BCSSW, whom he calls an inspiration.

“You have to realize, that for Najwa and I to have been able to work together in the first place, for her to have been able to come to Boston College to pursue a PhD, to get the permit to be allowed to leave the Territories, find funding, and then complete her degree is no less than a small miracle.”

During her time on campus, Safadi and Easton collaborated on several papers which were later published; it was clear to him early on that she had a rare talent and voice, and that he had a rare opportunity to work with a courageous individual from a part of the world that he cared deeply about. Then, late last year, Safadi contacted Easton to ask if he would be willing to collaborate on a new project.

Soon after, they began working together on a survey to analyze factors that predict life satisfaction, job satisfaction, mental health, and wellbeing in social workers.

“And just like that, I had started my first venture into global social work and global data collection,” he continues, “all the while tapping back into the place where I got my start after college. I was so honored to be a part of this project.”

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A woman of many talents, Boston College lecturer Ikram Easton is also pioneering educator in this country: she was the first-ever female certified Arabic teacher in the United States for K-12.

Boston College Arabic lecturer Ikram Easton

The Syrian Linguist

Boston College Arabic Lecturer Ikram Easton is a woman of many talents. She is a former Syrian national team volleyball player, an avid open water scuba diver who has plunged effortlessly to depths of 130 feet, she is a coach, and a mother to two young children.

Easton is also a pioneering educator in the United States: After a 15-year career teaching English as a Second Language in the public school system, she became the first-ever female certified Arabic teacher in the United States for K-12. She later started the first-ever Arabic language program in Iowa’s public high schools, and she also designed the first-ever online Arabic program for high school students in North Carolina.

Ever since leaving her native Lattakia, Syria to pursue a master’s degree at Indiana University in 1996, Easton has devoted her life’s work to building cultural bridges and improving people’s lives through the study of language. Whether it be the newly-arrived immigrant to the United States lost and without direction and the language skills needed to find it, or the American student looking to broaden his or her horizons and begin to try and understand a part of the world that is so different from their own, many have benefited from Easton’s compassionate guidance.

Recently, Easton’s call to serve others manifested itself in the form of a new kind of project – as translator for her husband Scott’s collaboration with Safadi.

“I’ve done a lot of translation work before now,” she explains, “but what is unique about this project is that I’m able to offer my linguistic talent and cultural competence to a project that means so much to Scott.”

Ikram’s role is to translate all of the surveys being conducted from Scott’s English version into Arabic, and then, translate subsequent open-ended responses back into English for data analysis.

“It’s critical that the translations be very precise, in order that the data collected be as accurate as possible,” she explains. “Every word, every expression can mean something slightly different, so I must choose the right term, the right phrase in each instance.” This reality is made all the more difficult considering the surveys are written in Modern Standard Arabic, but many of the responses from Palestinian Social Workers are in the local Levantine dialect, which is often different.

“I’ve had to draw from a variety of resources, including my own personal upbringing in Syria, as well as other professional expertise, in order to ensure that these translations are as accurate as possible,” Easton explains.

***

The Intrepid Doctoral Student

Behind many successful research projects in academia is an intrepid, hard-working PhD student. Safadi and Easton’s is no different – in this case, it’s Robert Hasson, who is on the front lines of data analysis, albeit from Boston. Once Easton has translated the handwritten original surveys (which arrived safely via FedEx from Ramallah mashallah!), he begins to enter the responses into the computer, towards analysis which should begin taking place early this fall. As Easton’s research assistant for the 2016-2017 academic year, Hasson recognizes the unique opportunity of working with Easton and Safadi.

“Prior to this project, I had very little working knowledge of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the lived experiences of individuals and families living and working in Palestine,” he explains. “A challenge for me has been immersing myself in literature to understand the experiences of individuals living in Palestine. Having this knowledge is important to me because it will provide a firm perspective when we complete data analysis and I can feel more comfortable offering my interpretation to Professor Easton and Professor Safadi.”

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In 1989, Easton (center with right hand on basketball) worked with Palestinian teens with spinal cord injuries at a rehabilitation center near Bethlehem University.

In 1989, Easton (center with right hand on basketball) worked with Palestinian teens with spinal cord injuries at a rehabilitation center near Bethlehem University.

This semester, the Safadi-Easton research team will begin putting together analysis that they hope to begin publishing on as soon as this coming winter.

Throughout the process, team members say, Boston College has remained a steady, positive, and guiding influence upon their work, offering logistical support and funding along the way, often there to respond to needs as they arise.

“For Boston College to support such a project, this says a lot about their commitment to social justice for those who are truly living at the margins of society, in a place that is among the most vulnerable worldwide,” explains Ikram.

The project also has important backing from an institution on the other side of the Mediterranean, namely, the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs, which has officially endorsed Safadi and Easton’s research and plans to provide a platform for its presentation.

“It means a lot to our project that the Ministry is paying special attention to our findings,” says Scott. “The social work profession serves individuals across the spectrum of vulnerable populations in Palestine, from its high number of widowed women and orphaned children to those with chronic health conditions and others living with disabilities, many of these caused by war. Social workers play a vital role in this space, and the more we can learn about how to keep them healthy, the better chance they have at successfully serving so many who desperately need their care.”

Scott says that he is hopeful that he can go to Palestine when the data is ready to be presented to the Ministry; it would mean a lot to him to return to this space in his current capacity as a professor of social work devoted to a people he knows, and whom he knows need care.

In the meantime, Safadi is conducting the final surveys and collecting the last data; traveling hours across the hot, water-starved Judaean Desert, through checkpoints and around the debris of a nation perpetually forced to rebuild. Until recently, she also had to contend with the challenges of the Ramadan fast, unable to offer the customary tea and pastries as a welcome and a thank you to her survey participants.

Happily, her fellow Palestinian social workers have been nothing but generous and kind with their time.

“This whole experience has been very positive,” she says. “From the technology that has helped us to work smoothly with each other from other sides of the world, to the support we have received from various constituent groups, we have been very lucky. This project reminds me that we should have hope; hope for new programs to improve the lives of social workers and the people they serve living in the Occupied Territories. Hope for Palestine!”

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