Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician and peace activist, spoke at the Saint Joseph’s College commencement on May 14, when nearly 400 students received associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the college.

Abuelaish, who also received an honorary degree from the college, was born and raised in the Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip, where he “never tasted childhood,” he said.

The experience inspired him to pursue education. In looking to tackle the problems of war and hatred he grew up around, “I dreamed,” he said, “but I worked hard to achieve my dreams.”

Abuelaish studied for his medical degree in Cairo, Egypt, and also earned a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University.

After losing his three daughters in the 2009 Gaza War, Abuelaish wrote his autobiography, “I Shall Not Hate.” He also founded a charitable organization, the Daughters for Life Foundation, which looks to advance health and education opportunities for women and girls in the Middle East.

Abuelaish is a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, in Canada, where he “can spread the human, universal message of peace,” he said.

Abuelaish took a few minutes to speak with the Lakes Region Weekly about his research and how to combat hatred.

Q: What does your research focus on?

A: I fully believe any academic environment should have research and classes on social justice. When we see what is going on in our world – there is so much anger, injustice, fear – our environment is polluted with it. We need research that has an impact in our world, research on rights and human rights.

When I see hatred, I believe hatred is a disease. Hatred and violence go side by side: they are mutually linked, they are connected, and they are destructive to the human being. They are contagious. We need to contain them, we need to work out what can be done to contain these destructive diseases. I believe when people are potential victims of hatred, we need education and connection between peoples. We need to know each other and communicate. We all face challenges. We need to take responsibility to protect our world, and talk to each other, so our lives are as one, and not fragmented.

Another aspect of my research is on women’s rights. We need to give women the right and the opportunity to learn. The world will be a better place if and only when women have the same rights as men. This is why I’ve been investing in women’s education, women’s rights and opportunities.

Q: Why did you chose to speak at Saint Joseph’s College?

A: I received a call from their president and was asked to give a speech. I’m coming because I believe in the students, and I want them to leave inspired to think, “What can we do to take responsibility for the challenges we are facing. How can we use our education and move forward to overcome these challenges?”

Q: What advice do you want to give to the students?

A: I want the students not to underestimate themselves, and to believe in themselves. With hope everything is possible; with determination and confidence they can make it.

Q: Are people born with hatred?

A: We aren’t born with hatred, we learn it. It’s not natural, it’s nurtured by exposure. No one is born sick, but we can make people sick. We are born free from diseases, anger, suffering and injustice, but the environment in which we live exposes us to these things, and that’s what leads to hatred.

Q: What can one do on an individual level to combat hatred?

A: On an individual level, I ask people to look internally. If you want to love me, you need to love yourself first. We don’t want to allow hatred because it destroys the human being who carries it. Until they start by changing what’s in their heart, they will never be rid of it. So you must start with yourself. With peace you can make others strong, with hatred we become weak.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish addresses students, faculty and parents at the 2016 Saint Joseph’s commencement ceremony. 

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