Multilingual Rutgers Activist Lends Voice to Help Those in Need

Shaheena Shahid believes language is power. She is fluent in five – English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and Urdu.

Each is a passport that allows the activist to travel the world – 25 countries in her 24 years – and understand firsthand the plight of those suffering from oppression and poverty.

“When you have language, you speak for yourself. No one speaks for you,” said the graduate student, who is studying foreign language education and ESL at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “The ability to speak directly to those in need – rather than through an interpreter – instantly breaks down barriers.”

Shahid has tutored orphans in Peru, India and Jordan, taught English to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and instructed young Moroccan girls on self-defense techniques. During her most recent philanthropic mission – volunteering as an ESL teacher in Brazil in the spring of 2017 – she represented the university as one of Rutgers-New Brunswick’s 14 Fulbright students.

“They want bright young people who will represent their countries well abroad,” said Arthur D. Casciato, director of the Office of Distinguished Fellowships. “In 2015, Rutgers nominated 84 candidates for the Fulbright Student Grant, and among them Shaheena stood out as a passionate and committed champion of social justice.”

The North Plainfield resident said her work as a student activist inspired her to leave her comfort zone the summer after her first year at Rutgers and experience personally the issues she is most passionate about – human rights and literacy.  She returns from each trip abroad committed to sharing the stories of the communities she visits and encouraging others to help her change their narratives. Last month, she was the featured speaker at the Purnell School, an all-female boarding school in Pottersville, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There she spotlighted the abuses of the female workforce worldwide, especially those in apparel manufacturing and the fashion industry.

“Once you get the knowledge you just can’t be silent about it,” said Shahid, former president of Rutgers Students for Justice in Palestine, formal social media coordinator for Palestine Children’s Relief Fund of Rutgers and active member of Rutgers Chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops. “The international community was the reason apartheid ended in South Africa and we can end it in Palestine today. If the international community bands together, other inequities around the globe can be conquered as well.”

A practicing Muslim and third-culture kid, Shahid said she is no stranger to racism at home and sees herself in many of those she aids abroad. While working as an interpreter with refugees in Greece, she easily blended with the hundreds of North African and Middle Eastern (stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan) families encamped in an abandoned airport waiting to cross into Western Europe. Until it was time to go home.

“They closed the borders and I thought, ‘What would be the difference between me and them?’” she said. “Just because I have an American passport, I can leave. They are stuck or need to pay someone to traffic them out. That is mind boggling.”

Shahid intends to devote her entire academic career at Rutgers – both undergraduate and graduate study – toward advancing future humanitarian efforts. A first-generation American, Shahid is the first in her family to graduate college, earning a bachelor’s in African, Middle Eastern and South Asian language and literature (AMESALL) from Rutgers in 2016. After receiving her master’s degree this May, she will continue circling the globe to aid underserved communities, focusing her efforts on women and girls.

“I want to open an orphanage for female literacy,” said Shahid, who adds that among the 800 million illiterate people in the world, two thirds of them are women and girls. “When you cannot read and write, you cannot empower yourself.”

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