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Meet the woman who escaped two conflicts — as a Palestinian refugee, then in Ukraine

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Zoya El-Miari is a peace ambassador whose life has been shaped by two of the major conflicts gripping the globe. She grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, just outside the borders of the state she considers her homeland but not allowed to step foot inside. The camp was violent and unstable, with limited job opportunities and limited freedoms. Eventually, she left the camp but to Ukraine, just before Russia's 2022 invasion. Now 24 years old, Zoya El-Miari lives in Switzerland, a Palestinian Ukrainian refugee working toward a graduate degree and advocating against violence as a One Young World peace ambassador. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ZOYA EL-MIARI: Thank you so much for the introduction. Hello.

KEITH: You grew up in the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon with 70,000 people, multiple generations. Tell us about life there.

EL-MIARI: So my dad is Palestinian, and my mom is Ukrainian, and I grew up in this Palestinian refugee camp within a community filled with child abuse, mental illnesses, ongoing clashes, looking at the size of this refugee camp and the thousands of people that are living there. And to that reality, we somehow got used to listening to the gunfires and shootings. I was lucky to go to a very good-quality school just outside of the refugee camp, a school that my older siblings didn't get the chance to study in there. And because I had very different reality from the refugee camp and the school I went to, at some point, I remember myself lying to my friends because I was really afraid about the associated stereotypes that come with being a refugee. So I was really afraid to tell them that I lived in a refugee camp, that I lived in a single room with my whole family, seven members in a single room.

KEITH: You were afraid to tell your friends at school outside of the camp.

EL-MIARI: Yes.

KEITH: Why did your family ultimately decide to go to Ukraine? And what kind of life did you find there?

EL-MIARI: So it's important to mention that back in 2006 when the Israeli war happened in Lebanon, we evacuated as Ukrainians to Ukraine. At the time my dad was Palestinian refugee. So we got the chance to move to Ukraine, to our safe space, and my dad stayed behind, just because he had different documents, just because he's Palestinian refugee. And fast-forward to 2021, when the situation in Lebanon was getting worse, with the economic crisis after the Beirut blast that killed over 200 people - we decided that it was time to go and have a fresh start in Ukraine. It was also a new integration for us with the Ukrainian language. So we were learning more about our other side, my Ukrainian side, and we were getting used to the life there until the war, of course, happened back in 2022. And that was another shock where we had to pack our whole lives again in a backpack and leave our home country for the second time to become twice refugees.

KEITH: What do you remember about the day that the Russian invasion began?

EL-MIARI: I remember when we were on a train going to Poland, my mom looked at me, and we were honestly terrified at any moment we were going to get bombed. And she was like, Zoya, hey, we should sing. And we started singing Ukrainian folk songs, and with every song, our resilience was growing stronger. And this time, I promised myself that if I make it out alive, I refuse to become the victim in life again, and I would become a warrior and a fighter. And I'm fighting with my story to shed light on the double standards, to shed light on the reality that we are living in where one part of me is more important than the other part.

KEITH: Well, explain that - as both a Palestinian and Ukrainian, how those different sides of you were treated as a refugee.

EL-MIARI: So when we escaped the war in Ukraine, we were welcomed by people, by the world, to which we are so grateful. Like, I always say that this kindness of the people is what truly regained our strength back, our positivity and our belief in humanity. And this is the way of treatment that we need to learn and really treat other people just the same way, treat my other Palestinian side the same way. We got used to as children that no matter how hard we try to shout and tell the world, like, hey, we are struggling, no one would really listen to my Palestinian side. And now when I tell people I'm Ukrainian, everyone would be interested and very empathetic to listen to that side of me. And something also from my personal experience - for the 22 years that I lived in Lebanon, I was never allowed to work. And now that I came to Switzerland as a Ukrainian refugee, just within 10 days, I received a status that allowed me the right to work, knowing that Switzerland is a country I've never been to. And I'm truly genuinely grateful to Switzerland for giving me this human right that I never truly enjoyed. And that's because I was carrying the Ukrainian passport. But what about my Palestinian side?

KEITH: You became a One Young World peace ambassador, and I'm hoping you can describe what that role is and what you're hoping to accomplish as an ambassador of peace.

EL-MIARI: Growing up as a child in a refugee camp, honestly, all what I wanted was peace. I wanted to be in a peaceful environment. And today, I understand that when I talk about peace, I'm also talking about justice because there's no peace when there is no justice. As a peace ambassador, I'm leading a global storytelling movement, Waves to Home, for refugees, migrants and displaced people to reclaim the narratives we tell ourselves. So we are narrating our stories in a more resilient way because we should no longer hide behind or feel ashamed because of realities that we did not choose.

KEITH: Zoya El-Miari, thank you so much for speaking with us, and good luck with your work.

EL-MIARI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Eleana Tworek
Eleana Tworek (she/her) is a news assistant on NPR's Weekend Edition. Tworek started at NPR in 2022 as an intern on the podcast Rough Translation. From there, she stayed on with the team as a production assistant. She is now exploring the news side of NPR on Weekend Edition.