By the people.TWO OF THE MOST FORMATIVE EXPERIENCES in Nisreen Haj Ahmad’s life were her father’s exile and his eventual return. She was just two years old when the Israeli army raided her family’s home in the West Bank in the middle of the night and arrested her father, a Palestinian activist working to resist the Israeli occupation. “They put him on a helicopter and dropped him in Lebanon near the border,” says Haj Ahmad MC/MPA 2008. “My mom waited a few years thinking he would be allowed to return, but he wasn’t. So she took us and we went to live with him in Jordan.”

Every summer she, her mother, and her three siblings would cross the King Hussein Bridge to visit family in the occupied territories. They would rise early in the morning and endure long wait times, questioning, and “humiliating” invasive searches, she says, “so I decided to become a lawyer to protect the rights of the people.” She earned her law degree from the University of Jordan in 1995, only to be told by the Jordanian bar association that at 20 she was too young to practice. So she went to Scotland and began earning a master’s degree in international trade law from the University of Edinburgh.

Then Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo II Accords, and suddenly her father was allowed to return to the West Bank.

Nisreen Haj Ahmad in her office.

“I remember we were on a bus of 30 people, all expelled for resisting the occupation and all allowed to return,” she says. “This was a different kind of crossing over that bridge—it was like returning victorious, with no security checks or anything. It was very surreal.” She remembers hearing Tania Nasser, a renowned Palestinian singer whose husband had also been exiled, singing an Arabic folk song to the passengers about returning home, and seeing the huge, joyous crowd that engulfed her father, raised him to their shoulders, and swept him away.

Those were heady, hopeful days, says Haj Ahmad, who now runs an Amman-based nonprofit called Ahel (“the people of the cause”), which partners with and trains community groups and organizations in organizing and collective action for justice and human rights. “It was a moment when we thought there would be peace,” she says.

After finishing her master’s degree, she became a legal advisor and negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, first working on trade deals with the European Union and Canada. She then started working with the PLO on the post-Oslo permanent status talks with Israel, including the Camp David and Taba summits, only to feel her hope slowly fade to disappointment and then near-despair over the next decade. The peace talks bogged down over continuing Israeli settlements; then, in 2000, the Second Intifada erupted; and in 2002 Israel invaded the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield. “It was really hard,” she says. “That was a really low point.”

One day her grandmother took her to an upstairs bedroom and pointed out the window, Haj Ahmad says. “And she said, ‘When you started negotiating, these Israeli settlement houses were on top of the mountain, and now look, they are close to my backyard. What are you thinking?’”

“It was very obvious what was happening,” says Haj Ahmad. “But frankly, it was just hard for me to say, ‘Okay, you know what? I give up on the conflict and finding peace through negotiations and through the law.”

Then a friend and HKS alumnus, Issa Kassissieh MC/MPA 2004, stepped in. Kassissieh, now the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See, told her she seemed “stuck” and suggested that getting a Harvard Kennedy School degree—and a new perspective—might help. The next thing Haj Ahmad knew, she was in Cambridge, living in an apartment in the high-rise Peabody Terrace graduate student complex. With its view of the tree-lined Charles River and the tot lot next door where her four-year-old son could ride his bike and play in the sprinklers, it was a world away, both geographically and emotionally, from what she’d left. “Frankly, I was just running away,” she says. “I didn’t have many expectations; I just wanted to be in a place where I wasn’t struggling.”

HKS senior lecturer Marshall Ganz teaching and Nisreen Haj Ahmad with her colleagues at the Amman-based nonprofit Ahel.
Worn down by years as a lawyer trying to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace, Nisreen Haj Ahmad MCMPA 2008 found herself transformed by HKS and particularly by the classes taught by Marshall Ganz (bottom right). Returning to Jordan, she founded Ahel, which teaches leadership and community organizing (left).

But soon she would have another formative experience: meeting Marshall Ganz, the Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society. Ganz recalls being engaged by Haj Ahmad right away. “She had this combination of deep curiosity and sort of evident courage—and a deep sense of searching,” he says. “It wasn’t just intellectual curiosity, but more like a question: ‘How do I make sense of what I’ve experienced in a way that I can actually go forward?’”

Haj Ahmad had never heard of Ganz when she arrived at HKS. But people with ties to the School whom she knew from her negotiator days suggested that she drop in on his class during shopping week. “I heard him talk about narrative and stories and what your calling is,” she says. “That resonated with me because at that point, my life had reached a juncture where it no longer made sense.”

Haj Ahmad took Ganz’s courses in public narrative (MLD-355M) and organizing (MLD-377). Public narrative starts with the individual, the story of self, says Ganz: “First it’s about ‘Why do I care?’ Then we move to the story of us, how to bring to light shared values in others and then how to turn that into action.”

The way Ganz frames problem solving also struck a chord with Haj Ahmad. “That’s the thing I got from Marshall,” she says. “The first question is ‘Who are my people?’ and not ‘What is the problem?’ or ‘What is the issue and how are we going to solve it?’ When you are at the negotiation table—say, with Israel—the question is ‘Who are my people and what are they doing for their cause or for their rights?’ The answer was that they were depending on the negotiator. So it hit me that there is a tendency of the people who struggle the most to think that someone else will represent them or defend them or lobby on their behalf.”

Ganz says the question “Who are my people?” is fundamentally about empowerment. “That question doesn’t mean ‘Who is my ethnic group?’ It means ‘Who is it that I’m committed to working with?’ The second question is ‘What are the challenges they face, and what kind of change do they need?’ And it’s based not on some academic study but on talking to people about their lived experience. It’s about ‘How can I enable them to use their resources in new ways to develop the power and the capacity they need to accomplish their goals?’”

Armed with her new approach, Haj Ahmad went back to Jordan and with her colleague Mais Irqsusi founded Ahel, whose main objective, Haj Ahmad says, is to build people’s leadership and community power. Over the past decade, the organization has grown to a staff of 12 that supports a team of 30 coaches. It has helped more than 20 political and social change campaigns in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, working on issues including gender rights, disability rights, workers’ rights, refugee rights, advocacy for personal freedoms, and prevention of discrimination.

Female teachers protesting for reform in Jordan.
A campaign to help teachers organize for better conditions and pay was one of Ahel’s many successful efforts.

One such effort is the Stand Up with the Teachers Campaign, which began organizing the female teachers in Jordan’s private schools in 2015. Most of the teachers were being paid less than minimum wage and were coerced to resign just before summer break. They also lost their contracts if they became pregnant.

Haj Ahmad says that Ahel trainers helped the teachers organize and discover where to apply pressure so that it would be most effective. The teachers eventually persuaded the minister of education, Omar Razzaz, to adopt new regulations stating that no private school would be recertified unless it provided transparent bank statements showing that it was paying teachers at least minimum wage for 12 months of the year.

“You hear people’s stories and you hear how they change from victimization to power,” Haj Ahmad says. “And you see that transformation, and it’s humbling. It’s a reason for pride for me, and for some satisfaction that I’m not wasting my life.”

Ganz says “her positivity in fighting in an arena where hopelessness would be almost the obvious choice” is what he finds inspiring about Haj Ahmad. “We try to make a distinction between optimism and hope,” he says. “That sort of optimism that says ‘Hey, everything’s going to be all right’ can blind you to reality. Hope is a recognition that the possible can sometimes triumph over the probable—in other words, that David can beat Goliath from time to time. And Nisreen has a deep sense of hopefulness.”

Images courtesy of Nisreen Haj Ahmad; Marshall Ganz photo by Kent Dayton

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.