By Mohammad Samra
Illiana Elayan, 41, walked with her family through the streets of Ramallah, West Bank bathed in bright sunlight.
Elayan, a third-grade teacher at Ridge Lawn Elementary, visits the Palestinian city to see family she has over there as well as tour around a Middle-Eastern city that is more modernized than others occupying the area. While Ramallah has made major architectural and technological improvements, major oppression still plagues the entire Middle-Eastern area, according to Elayan.
“Ramallah is a more modernized city because you have a lot of Palestinian-Americans who have moved there and brought their ideas and their money with them,” Elayan, an anti-Islamophobia activist said. “At the same time, it is the city the Israeli government wants to be built so this way we (Ramallah) look like we have a city and we look like we have an environment where we are living fine and we don’t need the rest of Palestine.”
Elayan is a firm supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement or “BDS” for short. The BDS movement aims to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians as well as pressure Israel to comply with the law. Companies across the globe as well as major U.S. companies like Nike and Walmart made large or annual donations to Israel, according to Elayan.
“Currently, we have the big wall,” said Elayan, “The Israeli ideology is that it’s protection against the terrorists on the other side which are the Palestinians but that wall also cuts off people from going to work, it cuts off students from going to school, it cuts off women going to the hospital to deliver, it cuts off all basic human rights to many Palestinians living in the territories.”
Elayan hasn’t shied away from using her platform as a teacher to help educate her students, regardless of the age of students she teaches.
“Every classroom I’ve had was a very diverse classroom so I made sure I touched upon things that are very close to them,” Elayan said, “ For example Black History month is this month, we’ve talked about the Civil Rights movement, who the KKK are, who these big names are, whether it be Malcom X or Rosa Parks or Ruby Bridges…They are the people of the future and they need to understand that not everything is roses and sunshine and they need to understand that there are people who don’t like them for who they are.”
“The best things about Illiana are how she inspires her students to embrace who they are, whether they are Muslim or not,” said 48-year-old Jafar Al-Shraideh, husband of Elayan. “She is an amazing role model for them, especially when there are so many opportunities to be led astray.”
Elayan takes her teaching style beyond the classroom and applies it to her children as well. She describes being Palestinian as “a battle that continues to be difficult” and urges younger Palestinian-Americans such as her two children to give a voice to those who aren’t as fortunate enough to have a voice of their own.
“I think she’s a great representation of Muslims as a whole,” said 15-year-old Omar Al-Shraideh, Elayan’s son, “Her ability to stay patient with them (entitled parents) and treat them with respect despite their disrespectful comments is a big factor.”
Elayan and her family arrived back to their home in Oak Forest, Illinois after spending a few weeks in Ramallah. They began unpacking their luggage and putting suitcases back into storage until the next time Ramallah calls their name. Whether she’s in Ramallah, Jerusalem, or Chicago, Elayan remains focused on combating anti-Islamophobia and bringing back Palestine.
“Eventually Palestine will return, but it will not return without people like my children and like all the young people that are here.”