By Jordan Elgrably
Los Angeles is home to many activists who devote their lives to improving the lives of others in the Middle East, but few are more committed than Laila Al-Marayati. An obstetrician, a writer and a public speaker on Palestinian affairs, Dr. Al-Marayati is the mother of four children and the cofounder and chairperson of KinderUSA, a humanitarian organization that focuses on the well-being of Palestinian children in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon.
While she is American on her mother's side, her father was the late Dr. Sabri El Farra, a Palestinian physician from Khan Yunus in the Gaza Strip. Dr. Al-Marayati has been there on several trips, most recently in the aftermath of "Operation Cast Lead," as the IDF calls it, in 2009. In addition to her contributions to KinderUSA, she is the Medical Director of Women's Health at Eisner Pediatric & Family Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles; she's also a Clinical Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at USC.
There was a time not long ago when KinderUSA was under investigation by a secret grand jury as one of several American Muslim charities suspected of supporting terrorism. In a 2006 op-ed in the Washington Post, Al-Marayati and co-writer Basil Abdelkarim—another physician active with the organization—spoke out. "We are among those American Muslims who decided that because it is our right as Americans to fulfill our religious obligation to help the needy both here and abroad, we would start a new charity. We did so in 2002 and have experienced our fair share of government harassment as a result."
The perception was that charities that were helping the Palestinians were supporting terrorist groups. Board members of KinderUSA were visited by FBI agents at home, they were questioned at airports; Laila Al-Marayati and her executive director, Dalell Mohmed, were interrogated and intimidated, but not deterred. As her Washington Post op-ed concluded, the message was that "Muslim Americans will be punished if they want to help Palestinians. Either way the assault on our charities is not about the safety and security of the American people but about politics."
Full disclosure, I first asked Laila Al-Marayati to speak at a conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back in 2001, when I also first met her husband Salam Al-Marayati, who is the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. Over the years I have had occasion to join her on Israel-Palestine panels or listen to her talk about the charitable projects of KinderUSA—a hot-breakfast program for hungry kids in Gaza, a playground project in the West Bank, a psychosocial trauma center in Hebron, among others. She is an extremely articulate and disarming speaker when it comes to painting a picture of the everyday lives of Palestinians. Yet she says, "When I go and speak there's always a request for balance [to present the Israeli side of the story]; you feel you can't just tell the Palestinian side by itself. There are certain issues that are off the table, it always boils down to moral equivalency...You had to follow a certain script and people would view that as a litmus test. Are we simply an apologist for terrorist groups?"
For years she received invitations to speak at churches and synagogues, but after the second Intifada started, she found more and more, people were speaking to themselves. "No matter where I go," she says, "there are always people from all different backgrounds who are concerned about justice, people who have had similar experiences, where the Palestinian story resonates with them. I try not to have any preconceived expectations of any group because each should be looked at separately. But there are always people who understand what we're talking about. It's about supporting the rights of the Palestinian people."
While FBI and DHS harassment has tapered off in recent years, Al-Marayati says there are still challenges to running KinderUSA, a charity whose primary activities take place in the West Bank and Gaza. "It's difficult to run a Palestine relief organization from overseas, because Israelis won't let Dalell, our director or me or others enter into the country itself. We have to have other individuals to visit our projects, but we'd like to have more direct involvement, as we do in Lebanon. The issue is challenges on the ground in the West Bank, freedom of movement—where people can work, how they can be hired—that has a huge impact anytime you're trying to get people to get their work done."
Raising charitable contributions remains paramount, she points out, because KinderUSA must grow in order to focus on long-term sustainable development projects that really promote self-sufficiency. Nevertheless, the organization is the largest of its kind, and has already impacted an estimated 600,000 children.
Still, Al-Marayati has observed on past visits that there are serious problems with neo-natal care and Intensive Care Units. "They have huge problems with getting the right equipment or getting it fixed. Sometimes even if we buy the gear we can't get it in. If that siege in Gaza were to be lifted," she says, "it would enable us to help in other ways. We could provide so much more that they need."
On one trip, she remembers getting into Gaza because of some family connections, but then she couldn't get from Gaza to the West Bank, and she's been been prevented from going into Israel twice now. "I can't fly directly into Tel Aviv. I hired an attorney there who went before a judge who had a secret file and wouldn't tell our attorney what was in it."
While KinderUSA is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month with a benefit event on May 5th featuring keynote speaker Norman Finkelstein, the organization has yet to receive any mainstream press coverage.