Margo Okazawa-Rey’s desire to help Palestinian women led her into one of the world’s most bitterly divided regions. Her journey involved “taking one of the biggest risks in [her] life,” and in doing so, the former Mills professor says she has found her home.
Okazawa-Rey, who was a women’s studies professor and director of the Women’s Leadership Institute at Mills, currently works for a Palestinian women’s organization in Israel. She is a senior research consultant at the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling in Jerusalem, a position she received in mid-July after her three-year contract with Mills expired last spring.
Her primary job is establishing a community-based research facility. She also teaches feminist theory, research methods and seminars on women of color to the staff.
“One of the most exciting parts of the job … has become working to create a feminist organization,” she said. “Our primary value [is] … love – for one another … for the women we serve, and the health of the planet.”
She said the level of acceptance, respect and support she has received from her Palestinian colleagues makes her feel like an integral member of the community. “I love my life here,” she said. “It’s a place where I have been met with open arms, invited in as if am a long lost sister having found her way home.” She said all of the help has eased her acclimation to the region and made her “personal and emotional life…rich.”
Her work experience in Jerusalem contrasts sharply with the employment opportunities she had in the United States. She said her work is far more appreciated, which has enabled her to apply all of her personal and professional knowledge. “My work, ideas, and contributions are celebrated in so many ways here,” she said. “It’s a 180 degree turn from my [prior] experiences.”
Lynne Sloan, a senior, receives weekly e-mails from her and supports her current position. “I know she is happy with her work,” she said. “I am concerned for her safety but [I] know that she can take care of herself and others.”
Dorine Slocum, a junior, took Okazawa-Rey’s Action and Development in Oakland class and described her as “the most accomplished educator with whom I have studied.”
Both said the Mills community has been greatly affected by her absence. “We lost an excellent educator and role model for all the wrong political reasons,” Sloan said.
Okazawa-Rey’s connection to the WCLAC began during her time at Mills. She learned of the organization through Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, director of the WCLAC and a colleague she met two years ago. The two worked together on a global fund for women, and Okazawa-Rey coordinated for Shamas to speak at Mills in the fall of 2004.
Okazawa-Rey said Shamas inspired her to learn more “about the situation in the occupied territories.”
“[Meeting her] was the first time I’d ever specifically thought about Palestinian women [instead of just] the situation of ‘Palestinians’,” she said. She chose to join the WCLAC out of a desire to “be of service” as well as to “expand [her] intellectual, political … and spiritual horizons,” she said.
Okazawa-Rey lives in east Jerusalem and must commute to her office in Ramallah, a Palestinian city located nine miles outside of Jerusalem. One of the greatest difficulties she faces are the physical barriers separating Israelis from Palestinians. She said she despises “the mundane, yet extraordinarily trying daily routines” of crossing security checkpoints, “watching helplessly as your home and community [in Palestine] become enclosed behind [an]…ugly cement wall.”
She also dislikes how Israelis treat her better than they do her Palestinian friends. “[I’m] being treated better than my Palestinian comrades and sisters because I have a U.S. passport,” she said. Such ‘special treatment’ includes access to certain areas in Israel, such as the main airport in Tel Aviv that is forbidden to Palestinians without a Jerusalem ID.
Despite these difficulties, Okazawa-Rey believes her overall experience has been positive. “In the final analysis, I feel as though I have been planning all my life to get here,” she said. “[I] plan to the stay until the work is done!”