Feeling invisible in the classroom: Reflections from a Palestinian-American

My intention in sharing this is to shed light on my experiences as someone from an occupied country that does not receive worldwide support. I want there to be recognition of the disparity in response, inside and outside the classroom, to the occupation of Ukraine in comparison to Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian countries. 

My hope is that this letter opens readers’ eyes to the lived experiences of people from occupied countries when reflecting on their individual media consumption, internal biases, and actions in response to world tragedies. Additionally, I aim to paint a picture of why it is harmful to regard these recent, horrific events as the first of their kind. Occupation and war have long existed and continue to impact the lives of many of your peers.

It is not my intention to belittle what is happening in Ukraine nor to take attention away from the suffering of the Ukrainian people. Rather, I am in awe of the support given, pray that the aid being provided helps end the suffering of victims, and dream that this level of support becomes a model for how we respond to occupation in other countries. I ask that you read the full piece to fully understand my perspective.

8 minute read.

Notes and follow-ups at the bottom.

I have been taking a class on equitable teaching and how to best serve students of all walks of life. It’s a small, 14-person class in which everyone knows each others’ names and a little bit about each others’ backgrounds. There is a strong emphasis on diversity and how we can be mindful when interacting with students and planning lessons for them. The instructors are kind and intentional, and it’s the type of class where I felt my identities would always be seen and heard. 

Last week’s class began with recognition of the war in Ukraine. There was a strong sentiment that this was the first time that most people were seeing this level of turmoil, and that occupation is unique to the situation in Ukraine. My instructor validated that doing work in times like these is a challenge and shared some coping mechanisms for dealing with intense emotions. It was a beautiful way to begin a class. I’d never been more frustrated in a classroom. 

We split into groups to begin our discussion on equity in the classroom by first reflecting on a personal question: “Share a time you felt you didn’t belong.”

I opted for a more general situation instead of an instance. I wrote: “When diverse spaces forget to include me.” I elaborated: “In ‘diverse’ spaces that don’t actually acknowledge my level of diversity; when people mention trauma and tragedy and always fail to mention that which you are facing.” 
I opened my phone that morning to a video of women and children screaming and running through the streets of Jerusalem. These videos are heartbreaking, of course, but more of my mornings start with these kinds of images than not. I grew up accustomed to seeing my people in pain. Images of guns to childrens’ heads, militant knees squashing necks, the tortured look on victims’ faces. Mushrooms of red fire and black clouds of smoke in the air signifying another strike on Gaza. Images of people being forced out of their homes, watching their family members unreasonably detained, and realizing one of their loved ones is never coming home. Some of these images hit home more than others. All of them were a reality my parents lived growing up, my extended family still experienced, and I could have faced had my family not moved to the U.S. 

As I grew older, I met people with similar stories from their home countries. Friends with suffering families in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Western Sahara, in Bosnia, in Kashmir, in Somalia… the list goes on. There were friends who were never able to visit their countries, friends whose parents can’t get back into the cities they’re from, friends who lost their family members to senseless violence at the hands of occupying forces, friends who grew up accustomed to the same images I’ve described. We all knew how lucky we were to be here in the U.S. and not living the consequences of occupation and war; we were all lucky to be watching the terror from our screens instead of our windows. 

It’s a privilege that I can look at these news stories, feel them, post about them, and go on with my day. It is a massive privilege that this is the first time that many of you have seen images of occupation and war before you as you are right now. It was a privilege that those who were experiencing this level of worldwide terror for the first time in my class were able to have their feelings acknowledged and take the assignments more slowly if they needed to. 

I was glad that the current crisis in Ukraine was addressed that day, and that it’s been widely acknowledged across the world. It needs to be. What is happening to the Ukrainian people is a horrible tragedy. I’m grateful that those suffering are being heard and that there are world powers standing up for them. I ache for those in Ukraine as well as the Ukrainians that are abroad right now and worried sick for their loved ones and homeland. I am grateful to the instructor for having the sensibility to bring up what was happening beyond our classroom walls…I just wish they didn’t make it sound like it was the first time that students might be suffering in response to occupation. 

After our instructor offered us a moment to reflect on a space that we felt we didn’t belong, I thought back to the many times in the last 8 years (since the 2014 strikes on Gaza) where I sat hopelessly in front of my schoolwork, wondering why I was doing it when my people were being attacked. I distinctly remember nights where I opted for writing poetry and songs instead of finishing assignments. It felt silly doing physics homework while people were dying. Those were the nights I was lucky- when I felt like I could do something about the emotions I was experiencing and spread awareness about the suffering in Palestine. The majority of nights I only felt overwhelmed by these images and doomscrolled through Instagram instead. It felt silly worrying about grades when people were dying. I felt like a horrible student for being unable to focus on school. 

I thought about how nice it would’ve been if once, just once, a teacher started class with the level of acknowledgment I saw given to other atrocities this week. If after the many strikes on Gaza that a teacher noted that it’s been a tough week, and that some students may be struggling. If after watching children in Palestine held at gunpoint and abused, that I would’ve been allowed to “take class slow if needed.” That’s just not the reality for Middle Easterners, South Asians, Africans, and other people of color when their homes are attacked. We were always forced to treat every day like any other. Assignments were due all the same, classes moved at the same pace, and nobody’s behavior shifted even slightly. We were never given coping strategies nor time or grace. We were never reminded that it’s hard to work through tragedies against our people- we were just expected to move on. People were either unaware of our struggles or considered it the norm. It’s a horrible thing to view the suffering of people of color as the norm. 

I’d never been shown that classrooms can be a space of emotional acknowledgment AND effective learning. I was grateful and impressed and livid all the same. 
Because I watched my people screaming in terror again that morning and it never seemed to matter. 
Because the situation in Ukraine isn’t unique, but it’s the only occupation that seems to count. 
Because even in a class centered on diversity I felt forgotten. 
Because I was that student that needed a reminder that it’s ok to struggle getting work done when your people are being attacked. 
My most optimistic take is that the worldwide response against occupation and the sympathy towards refugees serves as a model for how we can approach other atrocities. It’s great to know that public institutions CAN give support to their students in challenging times. It’s great to know human rights violations CAN be acknowledged on a worldwide scale. It’s great to know countries CAN open their borders to refugees. It’s great to know that we CAN condemn occupation. It’s great to know victims CAN fight back against their oppressors and be regarded as heroes instead of terrorists. There are horrible things happening in Ukraine AND the people of Ukraine deserve attention and support AND we can acknowledge that occupation is far from new AND that the people of Palestine and other occupied nations deserve SO much better from us. We can support Ukraine and still point out the double standard when it comes to how people of color are treated. I am heartbroken that our sense of humanity is regulated by the skin color of victims. In the same morning that I watched Eastern Europeans flee from their homes, I watched Arabs run in fear from their occupier. Neither is more or less important than the other. 

Notes: All opinions are my own. If you see any mistakes in my words, please feel free to reach out to me personally to discuss them or kindly comment. I am inherently a flawed human and am always in pursuit of more knowledge, and prefer it be done with compassion so we may all learn.  If I have missed a country above that you feel should be mentioned, please reach out, too. 

I fully recognize that it was never my instructor’s intention to cause me any pain. Their intention was good, and a beautiful model of how we should be addressing world crises in the classroom. I have since messaged them to open up a dialogue about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering from what is happening in Ukraine without belittling the experiences of those who grew up watching their countries face similar fates. The instructor has since responded to me with an incredibly validating note recognizing their privilege and bias and thanking me for providing them with this opportunity for growth. They even began the next class by verbalizing their mistake to the class and recognizing that they should not have assumed that this was the first time that students in their class were seeing occupation before their eyes, validated those of us who grew up watching our people suffer, and showed an honest intention to learn more and approach the classroom with this knowledge. 

Finally, I want to emphasize that I firmly believe we do not need to only address one world tragedy at a time- that would be a disservice to those who continue to fight for their homes and lives every day. Limiting our humanity to one group at a time is a disservice to the cause of Justice everywhere. We must recognize that the liberation of different communities is intertwined. 

No one is free until we are all free” -Martin Luther King, Jr. 


  1. Brilliant piece, ya Dania… from the heart, full of honesty and pain. What we feel for Ukraine should be what we feel for Palestine, for Yemen, for Iraq, for Rohingya people, for indigenous Native Americans etc. , for all who are struggling for self-determination and freedom.

  2. I’m so proud of you. Thank you for putting into words everything so many feel, but are unable to articulate. ? ?? ❤

  3. Thank you Dania, you are in my duas. Wishing you the best in your program! I can not believe you are a PhD student, where has the time gone! Sincerely,
    Ms. S from Amana:) (I’m not sure if you remember me)

  4. I felt every single word of this reflection but it is just another incident where we(others who have gone through similar experiences) do our best to shed light on other similar or worse atrocities only for the world to turn a blind eye once again … we can raise our expectations for the people to do right by all but once again we will fail them as a whole. It’s heartbreaking but thank you for once again using your platform to raise awareness!

  5. You’re such an eloquent writer. This piece put all the thoughts running around in my head together so beautifully and compassionately. Thank you for writing this and giving a voice to Palestinians and humanizing those experiencing oppression around the world.

  6. This is so beautifully written, Dania! It is so well articulated and a reflection of how so many of us have felt more than once in the classroom. Hope you PhD is going well and Ramadan Mubarak!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *