01/22/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Defying the Odds: A Mosaic of Palestinian Mothers

Motherhood is the most difficult job in the world. Add to it occupation, refugee camps and a tough economic situation, and it can become almost impossible. While exchanging stories about our experiences with the refugee communities, we realized that we knew very little about the daily life of Palestinians besides what we had personally experienced. One of us had only been to Gaza and the other had been to refugee camps in Jordan. It became apparent that our perceptions could not have been further from reality. We shared stories of the families we met and the inspiring women who worked to improve their communities. In spite of how different the two areas are, the women we met were both dedicated to serving their communities and realizing their dreams.

We met two women, Aida and Ayat, who truly embody the spirit of resilience we hope to have. These women chose to never let the obstacles of refugee life hold them back and instead showed their children that no amount of hardship can deter them from achieving their goals. Viktor Frankl, a renowned Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, wrote in Man's Search for Meaning that "the last of the human freedoms [is] to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." These women both found a way to escape the reality of their difficult situations -- reaching out to their communities and helping empower other women -- and in doing so, found meaning and purpose in an otherwise chaotic atmosphere.

Aida, Gaza Strip

Aida is a 44-year-old mother of four with the dream of helping young mothers in refugee camps across the Gaza Strip. Born in the Maghazi refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, her journey started when she became a midwife in 1994. Aida worked 12-hour, 7 night shifts a month for 13 years during many periods of unrest, including the second Intifada. She recalls the fear she felt leaving her young children at home with her handicapped husband as she went to her late-night shifts. However, Aida strongly believed that she had a moral obligation to help her patients. With the encouragement and support of her husband and children, she completed her Bachelor's degree in nursing in 2007.

During her time as a student, she would only spend two hours at home as she divided her time between work, class, errands and her family. Soon after, Aida enrolled in a masters program in Psychology. Aida is by no means a traditional student in Gaza, she is the oldest student in her classes, but this has never deterred her. Having seen the tragic effects of war, she wanted the expertise and knowledge to raise awareness, educate others and help those in need. Her research focuses on the incidence and contributing factors to postpartum depression in the refugee camps in Gaza. She hopes that her work will help raise awareness of an illness that is misunderstood and often flies under the radar. She has already started by distributing information pamphlets to all the regions she covered in her research.

She recently moved out of a Gaza City high rise and into a single family home closer to her place of work and her children's schools. The high rises were incredibly dangerous places to call home during incidents of aerial assault on Gaza City, particularly during Operation Cast Lead in 2008. Aida, her husband, and four children lived on the 8th floor in a two-bedroom apartment. When the power would go out, they had to climb the stairs to reach their home, an almost impossible feat for her husband who has multiple herniated spinal disks. She and her husband had always planned to build a house to give their children more space to play and a larger place to live. In 2008, however, her husband fell ill and had to travel to Jordan to receive treatment that ultimately cost the family $10,000. Their dreams of building a home were put on hold for a while longer. Luckily, they were able to finance a loan and build their dream home. Aida herself has taken out student loans to pay for her master's degree; she says it has been worth it.

She doesn't complain, though. She kept saying "Alhamdulilah," or all praise be to God. She says she does everything for her children to show them that circumstances should not define what they achieve in life, and to have the means to give them the most normal childhood possible in a place that is anything but normal. She wants to provide her children with every opportunity she did not have. Her daughter is applying to an exchange student program in the U.S. through the AMIDEAST organization. Her hope is to show her daughter that hard work pays off and that living in Gaza does not mean her dreams cannot come true.

Aida believes that Gaza has more opportunities for women because the culture believes that a woman's success reflects on her family's success. She says that she was lucky to have a supportive family that helped her make her dreams a reality.

Ayat, Amman, Jordan

I have to admit that the first time I met the future Dr. Ayat Nashwan, I cried. I cried because I had just returned from two and a half months in the refugee camps in Jordan and I knew that Ayat's story was rare. She had just arrived in the U.S. on a full scholarship from Yarmouk University in Jordan to start her PhD in Social Work. It was easy to sense her passion. Ayat will be the first Jordanian woman to graduate from the U.S. with a PhD in Social Work.

Ayat, whose parents are originally from Hebron, grew up in an unofficial refugee camp. After getting married, she moved into a one-bedroom house in an official refugee camp. Some people often see the camps as part of the lowest social strata and as a "place of crime," but Ayat recalls her time there as her most memorable time in Jordan. She looks back on her experience quite fondly: "I really enjoyed life in the camp more. [It] was so social: people share food and take care of each other... [like] one big family. I miss that very much."

Ayat credits her success to God first, and then to her husband, family and her supportive network back home. One of 12 children, Ayat says that her family always focused on education, and that drive stuck with her as a student at the University of Jordan. In addition to juggling her first year of a marriage and becoming a first-time mother, Ayat graduated ranked number one in her class in Sociology. Her husband, knowing her passion for her community and himself a PhD in Physical Education, encouraged her to pursue her master's in Social Work.

However, the financial barrier of paying for a master's almost brought Ayat's dream to a screeching halt. She made the extremely difficult decision to sell the gold from her wedding in order to pay for her first semester. Recalling the story brought tears to her eyes, "I believed in that moment that gold could come anytime, but not the chance of education."

Upon the urging of one of her professors and greatest mentors, Ayat applied for the scholarship to study abroad. It took three years, but she kept herself busy training as a news anchor with Al Jazeera, raising her two children and working as a social worker at a local school. When she finally received the scholarship, Ayat was just one step away from accepting a job with Baghdad TV as a news anchor. Ayat's husband did not hesitate in resigning from his job. In less than a week, the Nashwans packed their bags and moved to America.

As a PhD student, Ayat's research focuses on the systematic social welfare net and the social support system available to those most prone to poverty. She also wants to conduct more research on the well-being of Arab adolescent youth. After graduation, she will return to Jordan to teach at a university where she hopes to train the next generation of social workers and also empower women to pursue similar scholarship programs. Along with teaching, she hopes to do research with local and international NGOs on the rates of poverty, suicide and the use of protest as a status of quality of life in the Middle East.

Speaking with Ms. Nashwan, I noticed a common motivation for all of her pursuits. "I am just very lucky, very blessed to have this opportunity" and she wants other people like her to have access to these opportunities and more. Her ultimate goal is to ensure that the wealth of human resource in Jordan does not go untapped.

Both of these mothers have worked hard to help their children succeed and to provide the best possible life for them. Their strength, courage and love are the kind only a mother can have -- the kind that makes even the most uncomfortable places feel like home. They serve to remind us that even when the cards are stacked up against you, dreams can become a reality no matter how long you have to wait or how hard it seems to be. By nixing the status quo and choosing to create their own destiny, Aida and Ayat chose the more difficult path lined with roadblocks. By committing to their dreams, ideals, and ambitions to improve their communities, they inspired their families, friends and us to create meaning in our lives by giving back.