With so much negativity and division in the world today, it’s easy to want to stay home, retreat in our safe spaces and hope we don’t become targets of the increased amount of aggression and hatred. But for one ambitious and passionate millennial, staying home and retreating is not an option.
Haifa Beseisso is a 25 year old young Palestinian woman who also happens to be a Muslim. She grew up in Dubai where she studied digital production and storytelling at the American University of Dubai. One of the benefits about living there, she says, is that it is a very diverse city which made her feel like an International citizen, rather than just affiliated with one place or one type of identity.
After college, Haifa worked for a TV station for a few years, before deciding it was time to chart a different course. She quit that job and embarked on a trip around the world and launched a Youtube Channel where she documented her travels with a very specific intent.
“The image of Islam is so negative these days that even Muslims are afraid of saying they are Muslims,” she said in an introductory video on her channel.
During her time in 30 different countries, she filmed herself in public places where she would have confronting conversations with people about her as a Muslim young woman, and what they thought of her. The response was surprising, she says, as she has faced discrimination even in her home country because of the choice to wear a headscarf. She was denied a job on TV so instead she created her own on-camera opportunity and it has sparked a wave of excitement and interest from her near 130,000 Youtube subscribers and an average of 100k-200k viewers for her individual videos.
“I wanted to show the world how Muslim women are living their lives — most of them have a normal life and they do all that they want. For ISIS we are not Muslim. For non-Muslims we are ISIS,” she said.
Aside from making videos about traveling throughout Italy, India, the Maldives and shopping up a storm, Haifa breaks down stereotypes by proving not all non-Muslims are ignorant and hate-filled, and if we give people the chance to open up about how they feel about our differences, we might find more positivity than negativity. It’s not about being ignorant of the evil that is happening around the world, especially in the name of Islam, but to show that this is not the only narrative that exists and the truth about the majority of Muslim people must shine through.
In her video ‘Italians React To A Muslim Girl’ she held up a big empty piece of cardboard with the words “I am a Muslim” and invited others to write something underneath it. At first people ignored her, but then the floodgates opened. It showcased such a beautiful interaction between Haifa, a Muslim girl who embodies an identity that is often polarized and mired in fear by certain media outlets, and others who choose to see beyond labels.
“At the beginning, I feared people may write negative things. But eventually as more and more people approached me and started writing, I realized it was all beautiful. One man wrote: ‘I am Christian and you are my sister. Human just like me.’” she told Women in The World in an interview.
Her desire to go beyond the fear, confusion and hatred that exists in the world today is a beautiful and powerful testimony to humanity. In London, a place that has experienced plenty of racial tensions over time, especially due to the recent Brexit vote result, Haifa walked around in busy areas asking random people what they thought of her headscarf, and the answers were as varied as they were interesting.
Her conclusion was that there is a lot of mis-information about Muslim women that we need to put aside political and media narratives, especially those related to really horrific incidents like terrorism, and be willing to relate to each other as human beings to find out what makes us different as well as the same.
“People think of us as oppressed women. They don’t know that when I graduated from college, my uncle brought me a world map and told me ‘Pick any country you want to see. Your graduation gift is a ticket that will enable you to see all that you want.’ Nothing about this is oppressive,” she tells Zainab Salbi at WITW.
Haifa is certainly not trying to deny racism by any means, but is purposeful about using her channel to show a counterbalance to this. Whether we admit it or not, we are influenced by the media and images we consume on a daily basis, so if all we ever see are negative stereotypes about certain people, how else are we ever going to gain a sense of empathy which allows us to see those different from us as fellow humans?
She has become successful at bringing about what could be divisive conversations in a more light-hearted way by infusing her channel with her other interests as well. This in turn allows viewers and subscribers to see she is more than just an amorphous label often assigned to the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.
“When I went to the U.S., people used to stop me in the streets just to ask me questions about my culture and religion. So I wanted to go and speak of it using the language of travels … I love adventures, dive in the seas, love wearing colors and having that be the conversation … I can’t just talk about the Quran,” she explained.
It’s not just her own culture and identity she is bringing awareness to, but allowing herself to discover and explore the lives of people in countries that are very different from her. It is sad to think someone as influential as Haifa won’t be seen in mainstream media headlines any time soon as it seems nowadays those are only reserved for the most controversial, divisive and shocking stories.
But we all know how important it is to have a role model like her traveling around the world and breaking down barriers. This ambitious young woman who describes traveling as “the university of life” says she has become far more open-minded and had her perspectives widened. Learning acceptance became a reality once she chose to let down her guard and share her own story with the internet.
“The image of Islam is so negative these days that even Muslims are afraid of saying they are Muslims…What people need to see is the individual that I am with all my hopes and dreams. If we can talk about our dreams together then we can see we are all the same,” she said.
We can’t wait to see more from Haifa, as she is nowhere near done with her bucket list of countries to travel to. In the future, she hopes to discover more of Latin America, Africa and Jamaica. Although she’s not too keen on Alaska, “too cold!” she says!
Watch what happened when Haifa spent time in a refugee camp on a trip to Nepal: