Students protesting at Gonzaga University / Photo by Trévis Ray, PSL

Edited by Sara Quinn

On May 4, 2024, I sat down with Tassneem and Senna, two Palestinian women who were born and raised in the Tri-Cities, to listen as they talked about growing up as Arab Americans in Eastern Washington, the genocide in Palestine, and the response here in the U.S.


I was in first grade when 9/11 happened. As a kid, you don't understand what the other children say. Until that point, I had never seen myself as different from the other kids. I knew that I grew up in a home where I spoke two languages, but a lot of kids at my school spoke Spanish and English, and so I just thought that was normal. 

Over the next few years, things ramped up, and the differences became very apparent. The kids would use the negative things they heard from their parents or friends and tie it to me — to who I am and what I represent. It was mainly things like: “Terrorist!” “Go back to where you came from.” “You don’t belong here.”

We  had a couple teachers who came to our interfaith dinners, and supported us at school and knew when Ramadan and Eid were and extended that cultural awareness and safety to us. But others wouldn’t even attempt to pronounce my name. And they would single me out to answer questions about the Middle East. It was mind blowing to me. Especially when I got to middle school and high school, I remember teachers singling me out as the only Arab kid in the class and being like, “Oh, you're the one who could answer our questions about the war in the Middle East!” The teacher who should have been teaching this lesson was singling me out in class and putting me on the spot randomly.

I would think: I don't know anything about the Iraq War. I'm fifteen. It started when I was six or seven… I don't know. I'm not a history professor. I'm not a politician. 

I grew up here, and while I’m certainly proud to be an Arab, I’m not the spokesperson for an entire people.


Yes. When they would ask a child to be the spokesperson, it would automatically put us in the position of adults in the situation. Then the adults would no longer be responsible; the children would be responsible for educating themselves, and having a sense of cultural humility, right? An automatic switching of roles. So if the teacher becomes a student, the student becomes a teacher; and in a way, that was not consensual.

And then you have to think, how is the teacher that puts themselves in that role able to protect the student that's experiencing that? Yeah, we didn't get a lot of protection from our teachers. They were actually kind of targeting us, in a way.

We learned how to code switch really well post-9/11. When we embraced our culture, or our religion, that was when we would get bullied or shamed or ostracized. If you learned how to act like a white girl, no one was going to bother you. We learned to assimilate to protect ourselves.

And you can try as much as you can to act like a white person, but you'll never be white enough, If you're not white. That's just how it goes. And that's something I think in the Tri-Cities, a lot of people don't understand, because a lot of people are white. They don't see the extra effort that people of color do in order to make white people feel comfortable.

There is a vacuum when it comes to cultural acceptance. I mean, this is a city with a huge Latino population, and we ostracize that community. The Tri-Cities is a town with a history of racism — segregated sundown towns. And I think if we're going to contextualize it to Palestine, what people don't get here is that Tri-Cities is a government settlement. The way that people were segregated here has so many parallels with apartheid in Palestine and other nations. There were Indigenous people here before World War II, and they were ethnically cleansed. And that's the case in Palestine, too. Palestinians are silenced in the West Bank and Gaza, Arab and Muslim students are silenced here.

It wasn't really until after graduation that I had to confront: Why do I feel so confused about who I am? What is my identity? How long have I been silencing myself? 


Some people in this community somehow still don't realize that they have no excuse not to know what's happening. You have access to a barrage of information — whether that be from YouTube, TikTok, news articles, Instagram, or just people you know that you could talk to face-to-face; and if you're not accessing or taking advantage of any of that, you have no excuse not to know. We have more information now than we ever had before. To say you don’t know, or that you’re not educated on it, is just a cop-out. We’re all responsible for questioning the information that comes to us. 

There is a lot of misinformation out there, and I do feel somewhat for people that are targeted by that — people that are more liable to fall victim to misinformation. And at the same time, you still have the ability to do your own ‘research’ — and while I don't really like that by ‘research’ most people mean a Google search, they still have the ability to look into what's a credible news source. At the end of the day, it's all of our jobs to question where we get our information from, and to verify that information. 

Like right now, so many people are equating Jews and Israelis as one monolith. Zionism does not equal Judaism. Are there Zionists that identify as Jewish? Absolutely. But they are not the same.


Zionists weaponize Judaism, in the sense that when Israel commits horrendous acts, they say they are doing it in the name of all Jews. And it honestly paints a target on Jews and is itself antisemitic. They are making it seem like Jewish people are complicit with this horrendous genocide, with this occupation, which is absolutely not true.

We all know that Jewish Voice for Peace exists. And you can see the Jewish activists that are protecting students on campus right now. The ones that have been protesting for the last six months wear shirts that say “Not in our name!” and “‘Never again’ means never again for anyone.”

I think in the first couple months after October 7, it was like a reawakening of racism, kind of like post-9/11. I imagine for the children growing up in the Tri-Cities now, it's like what we went through at school. But to me, in studying the different types of movements historically, this is a lot like what has happened in the anti-war movements, like the Vietnam War protests.

At universities where we honor the students who protested the Vietnam War… why are we demonizing the student protesters right now? A lot of folks say that every generation has its cause. Time and time again, we're anti-war. No one wants war. That's what it feels like, at least in my experience. 

And regarding what’s happening right now on college campuses around the country — I think that a lot of people are probably watching the news, and feeling really confused, not understanding why these students are having encampments. And I think that what's missing here again, just like what's missing from their understanding of Palestine, is context. A lot of these American universities accept money from corporations like Boeing, who is arming Israel. And it’s not just Ivy League; it's not just Columbia and Yale. It's Portland State University. It's the University of Washington. It's Evergreen College in Olympia. 

Well, actually, Evergreen just divested from all ties to Israel. They were the first University to do it. Evergreen has a history of political organizing, actually. Rachel Corrie — she was an activist from Olympia who went to Gaza to see what was going on on the ground there, and when she was protecting a Palestinian family's home from being demolished, she was killed by an armored bulldozer. 

But I’d like to talk a little bit more about the student uprising that is happening right now. If people need to know anything, it’s that these universities across the country accept money from weapons corporations, and these weapons manufacturers then get to make decisions on college campuses. For example, at Portland State University, spots in the engineering program and the business program have increased, whereas you can no longer take Arabic Language as a major. And these companies offer internships to university students to then funnel those students into working for these weapons manufacturers. 

So the real uprising here that's happening is students choosing to reclaim their education in the name of Gaza, in the name of every martyred Palestinian that lost their university, that lost their lives, that lost their family’s lives. That's what this is about. 

And, by the way, students have been working on these divestment campaigns for years. And what you’ve got to realize is that students have strived to have a democratic process of negotiating with their school admin; but ultimately, they have been silenced repeatedly to the point where they finally said: “For Gaza, no more. For Gaza, we're going to make this encampment and we're going to demand our Universities divest.” Because look at South African apartheid — what ultimately worked for them was boycotts, divestment, and sanctions; BDS is literally what it was. So what we see at University of Oregon, for example, or what we're seeing at UCLA, are students holding the line, the political line, to demand their universities not only divest but cut all ties with Israel, in the name of humanity, in the name of every martyred Palestinian in Gaza. 

The way we now think about the student protests of the Vietnam War, and the Kent State massacre — I believe history will see these students through that lens in the future. For people missing that context, they may be saying, “Well, they shouldn't protest that way.” 

Students organizing a walkout at Eastern Washington University / Photo by Trévis Ray, PSL


The students are leading the way. The people in power demand so much civility and obedience, and rules for the way we protest, and yet they are behaving in the most uncivil and destructive and barbaric ways. When our politicians, people in power, are sending money that build these weapons and that continue to support and fund this colonial entity that's trying to erase an entire people, how dare they demand politeness from people protesting? From these students? You try to police the language that they use in their speeches and police the way that they choose to protest, when you are literally funding the destruction of an entire society? There is no university left in Gaza. They've all been destroyed. No more libraries. No more schools. 

At my place of work, no one talks about it. The first couple of months, it felt like I was experiencing the same thing from my colleagues that I experienced from classmates growing up: We're not going to talk about what's happening, we're not going to ask you what's going on, we're not even gonna go as far as to ask you, ‘Hey, do you have family over there?’ Only one or two people in the entire organization that I work for bothered to ask. They just pretend like it's not happening.

And I think it kind of goes back to what we were saying about learning to assimilate, growing up. And even though now we feel way more strongly rooted in our background and who we are as Arab Americans — as Palestinians — it's still easy for us to just kind of fall under the radar. Some people see us as ‘white passing’ and they don't question what's under the surface. 

I lost a lot of friends after this stuff, friends that I've had for years. It just became very clear to me that they were only going to see what they wanted to see. The Arab in me makes them uncomfortable. They don't understand it and they don't want to understand it. And for me, that's just not acceptable. Accept me as a whole person or don’t accept me at all. I'd rather keep my humanity intact, and maybe be a little bit sadder, a little bit lonelier. I’d rather have fewer friends than be surrounded by people who really don't see the problem that's happening. 

I have friends that have lost dozens of members of their families. I mean… that means something. That's critical. What is happening in Palestine, the history of Palestine, directly resulted in [Senna] and I being raised here. My grandparents were displaced from Palestine, from their homes. Everything that's happened up until now affects not only us, but the rest of the Arab and Muslim and Christian communities over there; and Jewish communities over there were affected by it, too. 

It didn't start on October 7th; we've been affected by this for 76-plus years. And so you’d have to put your blinders on to not see how — not only the present genocide that's happening, but the history behind that and ethnic cleansing movement that's been happening for 76 years — to just not see how that's affecting us. 

My main issue, especially being a healthcare worker, is the destruction of hospitals over there in Gaza. So many deaths of healthcare workers. We just learned of massacres being uncovered where healthcare workers in their scrubs were found bound with zip ties, some with their heads smashed and some that were buried alive under Nasser Medical Complex and Al-Shifa Hospital.

The civilian death toll is insurmountable. But when you think of the complete destruction of hospitals? Also all the members of the press that have been killed? It’s absolutely horrendous.


The silencing! It’s what happens here, too. What you said about our friends only wanting to accept a part of us, not all of us, has to do with their personal responsibility to look inside. They need to ask themselves: Why am I not caring? Why do I not have an empathetic connection to what's happening?

As human beings, how can we just not care?

That's what's frustrating — they're not looking; they don't see it. If you think about the nature of how the U.S. functions… We are busy, and we are tired, and we don't have time to think about other things, let alone ourselves. And that is where we begin to sacrifice our humanity. That's how you end up with people that go about their day-to-day and don't think about what’s happening in Palestine, and they don't think about what's happening with students in America protesting genocide; they're not thinking about anything beyond their nine-to-five. 

They also don't think about the damages that are being done to our society in America. When the U.S. has so far sent Israel something to the tune of $392 billion in military aid, and here we can’t have healthcare. I mean, tens of thousands of people a year die from lack of access to healthcare, because our government claims they don't have the money to fund it. And yet, the week before last [in April 2024], they sent another six billion to Israel, and you're telling us you don't have the money for that? I don't understand why more people in the U.S. aren't seeing the ills of our society, that it’s falling apart around us. No healthcare or mental healthcare, homelessness, our veterans don't get care… All of that money going to bombs could be used to fund those social programs! 


I just wish people would recognize that all your complaints about our society here are a direct result of that money going to a foreign entity to commit horrendous acts against other human beings. It's to commit genocide; it’s to kill people — literally cleanse them off the land. It's a land grab!


The notion of “What happens in the Middle East doesn't affect us here” is a lie.

It is absolutely intertwined. And it will continue happening until people recognize that.


Yes. And I think that ties back to my point about my disappointment working in this community. We've seen the numbers coming out, the hospitals being destroyed and decimated, and the resources being completely cut off. And then seeing the death toll of healthcare workers… I feel like those people over there are my colleagues, doing the same work I'm doing here, and yet no one here speaks up for them. It's incredibly disheartening to feel like I can’t speak up for them in my place of work.

I mean, I respect the fact that the workplace isn't necessarily the place to have political discussions. But when it gets to this point, where we're seeing what's happening over there — not even just people being killed or seriously injured from bombs or missile strikes, I’m also talking about the complete decimation of a health care system. It's people dying from very preventable illnesses, like urinary tract infections and respiratory illnesses, people that don't have access to their dialysis treatment, people that don't have access to their cancer treatments… they no longer have pharmacies and don't get their medications properly. These are very routine things in a society that people need access to, and they have none of that. And I see it, and it blows my mind that people still, seven months in, aren’t thinking about this, that healthcare workers aren't thinking about this. Why are we not speaking up for them? Why are we not coming together as colleagues, as institutions, as a community of people who signed on to do this job?

It's just a shame that the healthcare institution in America refuses to speak up, refuses to shed light on the situation, and refuses to help. It's really disappointing, feeling like I can't speak up, and like nobody that I work with really cares enough to do anything.

It’s the same thing as when we were growing up — either we have to be the spokesperson of our trauma and our grief, the spokesperson for millions of people, or we have to stay silent. So when it comes to feeling like I'm being silenced, it's not necessarily that everybody's saying, “You can't talk about it.” It’s that if you do speak up, you're the only one talking about it — talking about an insurmountable amount of grief. Are you going to be supported in your workplace or your place of study? I mean, why is it that a nurse has to be the one that's speaking about the healthcare crisis in Gaza? Why is it only a nurse? Why isn’t it the entire hospital administration? 

I think that the common thread is humanity. Consider what really matters: human lives, or property, or reputation? Humanity, at the end of the day, should be the priority. Human lives. I think that's what's missing. 


Dehumanization is a tactic used against Palestinians. It’s a tactic that the white man used against Black people during the time of segregation. And it’s what happened to the Jewish people! 

Time and time again, it's history repeating itself — the same fight, again and again and again. Humanity calls for liberation, and oppressors hate that, oppressors want power. When they have it, they want to hold onto it, and power corrupts. That's what it is. 

Tragedies don't exist in a vacuum. You know, it's the same problems here. We see people that are homeless here. We understand the disparity in the distribution of wealth, and then you compare it side-by-side with race, and see where the majority of wealthy people in the Tri-Cities are, and the majority of poor people. You know, it's the same issues with gentrification. It’s all the same issues, really.

And some people are choosing to disengage: “It’s too much.” “I can’t handle it.” And it’s too much for them because what we're missing is community. That is truly what we're missing here, that people need people. And we need people that are different than us. I'm gonna need to be around people other than just the people I’ve grown up with, people that are raised the same as I was. Look at your friends. Are they just like you? Or are they different than you? Are they different in thought? Are they different in religion? Are they different in body size, in sexuality and gender? All of these things matter! Because if you have a homogenous group of friends, and then you're like, “I don't understand this issue…” Well, look at your environment. What are you surrounding yourself with? Everybody has the responsibility to be educated. It can be really, really hard to remain educated or to have a clear picture when you're only surrounding yourself with one perspective.

So, how do we get community? I think the answer is community organizing. Tri-Cities has a rich history of interfaith community organizing, actually. Growing up, the Islamic Center of Tri-Cities would host yearly interfaith dinners with the Shalom Church. I think that it's been an ongoing thing, but it's kind of sporadic at this point. 


It was definitely way more frequent, then. It was an important thing we did every year when we were growing up.


Those interfaith practices — like community fundraisers, events, or dinners — they really bridge people together and establish a sense of community that goes beyond race or religion. Also, there was a thing we did at the mosque growing up — we would invite our teachers to the mosque to better understand their muslim and Arab students. Having my teachers show up for me in that way was very significant. My teachers were sending the message: “I see you, my classroom is a safe and welcoming place for you to learn.” The educators who did that for me were a vital part of my childhood, and it was in their classrooms where I learned how to be comfortable just being myself.


Oh, yeah! There were these hosted dinners where the kids that grew up going to the mosque would invite one of their school teachers, and we would host a dinner, potluck style. And you know, there would be community leaders at the mosque so the teachers could ask questions if they wanted to. And it was sort of like an educational, informational session — get to know each other, get to know your students and their families. 


I would also like to plug the PSL chapter that's here. They do things to build a sense of community. It's not just picketing outside of Dan Newhouse’s house, but it's also doing things like rallying with students at Gonzaga and WSU, Black Lives Matter, the March for Science, and the Women's March. Those are community initiatives that exist in our area that we should support. 

In times of crisis, Tri-Cities rallies! During BLM in 2020, there were people in the streets, and I was like… Whoa, wait, hold on a second. Tri-Cities does have people that will support a cause, and it's intersectional, and it's full of youth, and it's vibrant! 

So now what we need is an answer to the question: How do we harness that when it’s not a crisis? How do we harness that sense of community when it's not police murdering people or a genocide in Gaza? That's what's really missing.

And we find ourselves craving those connections we had during protests, when we were putting our bodies on the line. Where do we find ourselves when the dust settles? Where are those people? How do we get connected with them? What's the plugin for that? 

Everybody wants community. That goes beyond race, beyond religion, and the other things people use to keep us apart.

What people need to understand — whether or not you understand the context of Gaza, whether or not you understand the context of occupation — is that we're being silenced here. When you see students getting beat by cops, when you see TikTok bans, or when the House of Representatives is passing legislation up to the Senate about whether or not we are allowed to critique Israel without being called antisemitic, when we see journalists die, or whistleblowers suddenly die — that's when people need to be paying attention. What is actually the real message here? And why is the U.S. government trying to silence us?

Photo by Hosny Salah on Pixabay


We've already discussed that the U.S. sends a lot of money to Israel; and we know that we send them our American-made weapons, and about all the influence of AIPAC, and how our universities give them a lot of money. And then, at the same time, we do things like we make a pier off of the coast of Gaza, made with the rubble of the homes that our weapons destroyed, to provide humanitarian aid to the people that survived those bombings. 

And it doesn’t make sense that they have the ability to load those trucks up with rubble and body parts, and they can somehow drive those trucks through Gaza to go build that pier, and yet they can't get trucks in to deliver aid to these people. 

The U.S. just wants to keep up the narrative that they’re the good guys. And meanwhile, 35,000 Palestinians have died. At least.


Right now, if we were to hold a funeral for every single dead child in Gaza, it would take 44 years for us to finish the funerals. That's what we have to sit with. That's what we have to reckon with. 


It’s getting to the point where every fact sounds shocking, because these are alarming statistics. You know, I read one yesterday, that 37 kids in Palestine lose mothers every day. And you know, the emergency workers had to create a new designation for children: WCNSF — wounded child, no surviving family.

No one is mad or alarmed enough! And it’s very telling. It shows in the cognitive dissonance that's happening here. I mean… this is the first live-streamed genocide people have ever experienced.


And the people choosing not to look just don’t believe it. Because it is so shocking. How could it possibly be real? 

Everybody has a connection, too, to what's happening in Gaza. It’s not just a Muslim country. The Christian population of Gaza is also being exterminated. The oldest Christian church there was just destroyed. This is not a case of Muslim versus Jew.


Oh, one hundred percent. It's not a religious conflict. It's a genocide. It is an illegal occupation on stolen land, is what it is. And the U.S. is funding the majority of it with our tax dollars. I think that is the context that we will need to have in order to be able to understand any of this.

They are trying to claim a land that our families have been on for hundreds of years. We can show the receipts of DNA, but it doesn't make a difference. The fact of the matter is that there was a violent, bloody displacement of 750,000 people in 1948 — ‘The Nakba’ — and there's nothing you could say that would excuse that. There were Jews here before; there were also Christians and Muslims here before. That doesn't change the fact that people came from Europe, under the idea that this was their land. And they forced us off and took it.


I will say there was a long period of time where I didn't know what was happening in Palestine. I didn't understand. I just was Palestinian by name. And I didn't understand what my role was in all of this. Being born Palestinian, being a Muslim, what is my call that I have to answer? Even when I was studying in the West Bank, I didn’t understand yet how my identity is political — as a woman, as a Muslim, as an Arab. And I think that's what everybody has to reconcile with: What is my responsibility in this matter? 

I think this take might be a little too radical for some readers, but civil disobedience is merited when humanity is lost; and when the people in power have forsaken humanity, there's no other option but civil disobedience.


That’s what students and other protesters are realizing. They’re saying, “I was raised in this, but I don’t subscribe to it any longer. I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. We need to find a different way.”

Are you tired of feeling like there’s nothing you can do?