Maen Hammad’s father, who spent much of his life in a Palestinian refugee camp, used to tell him that “an education is more powerful than any weapon because it can never be taken from you.” To this day, Maen, ESIA ’17, lives by these words.
From building skateboard parks in Palestine to volunteering to end discrimination across the United States, Maen is committed to harnessing the power of education. Now, thanks to a donor-funded graduate fellowship, he is pursuing his dream: to study international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs and help bring change on a larger scale.
Born in Palestine, Maen immigrated with his family to Michigan when he was two years old. He returned to the West Bank as an undergraduate student for a two-month intensive Arabic language program. There, he was surprised to find an emerging skateboarding scene and became involved with SkatePal, a UK-based nonprofit that opens skate parks in Palestinian territories. Maen himself was an avid skateboarder and had spent countless hours in his community skate park back in Michigan.
“I remember getting my first skateboard when I was nine, and I fell in love with the sport,” he says. “I used skateboarding as a creative outlet for stress, as a motivator, and for fun. This is the goal of SkatePal, and this is what I am pushing for the adolescent and youth cohort of occupied Palestine: to express themselves using skateboarding instead of violence.”
After graduation, Maen returned to Palestine for a 7-month internship with Ma’an Development Center in Ramallah and continued to volunteer with SkatePal. He helped build a half-pipe and taught six-week lessons to up to 30 kids at a time, even adjusting the schedule to hold classes at night during Ramadan while his students fasted during the day.
Spending time with his students, whose childhood experiences were so different from his own, was eye-opening for Maen.
“It had a big effect on me,” he says. “I have refugee status and Palestinian heritage just like them but my childhood was so normal. I wanted to find a way to share their story and highlight the presence and power of skateboarding in Palestine.”
So, in addition to his internship and volunteer responsibilities, Maen began filming a documentary, Kickflips Over Occupation, collaborating with other international students studying journalism or filmmaking to get specific shots. Working extra hours on weekends to save up for film equipment, Maen was determined to share how his students used skateboarding as a positive tool for self-discovery. “For these kids, it’s a nonviolent mechanism to live more normal lives,” he says.
Maen is no stranger to the power of storytelling. As a volunteer for Take On Hate, a national anti-discrimination campaign, he traveled across the U.S. to record stories of discrimination. His goal: to challenge misconceptions about Arab and Muslim Americans and increase awareness and education about what they mean to our communities.
“Prejudice and discrimination are dangerous tools that marginalize large groups of people,” Maen says. “To hear these stories firsthand and have a leading role in distributing them for the public felt like an obligation for me.”
Maen’s volunteer experience and his time in the West Bank also solidified another goal: to earn a graduate degree in international relations with a focus on the Middle East.
“I had considered law school, but after my trip to Palestine, I felt there was so much I wanted to do and only some of it touched on law,” he says.
The George Washington University, where he could concentrate in both the Middle East and international law at the heart of international affairs policy and decision making, was his top choice. When his acceptance letter from GW finally arrived, with it came even more surprising good news: he’d been awarded a coveted graduate fellowship.
“I was ecstatic!” Maen remembers. “Receiving this fellowship is a confirmation of my hard work and a realization that my potential to achieve my goals is just around the corner.”
Maen still lives by his father’s words: education holds the power of a lifetime. Thanks to the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Fellowship Fund, Maen can pursue his degree from one of the premier international affairs programs and continue to make a difference in the lives of others.
“Funding education, to me, is one of the most noble and kindest acts to perform,” he says. “I feel like there’s a trust and belief in me and that pushes me to excel even more.”