Posted by Guest on June 18, 2018 in Blog

By Allison Ulven

Dr. Najat Arafat Khelil is a pioneer in the field of science, becoming the first woman in Texas to earn a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1974. Since then, she has dedicated her life to education and the development of young leaders, whether in the field of science or to assist in conflict resolution in the Middle East.

Born in Nablus, Khelil’s father always emphasized the importance of education and encouraged perseverance. As a result, she finished in the top five during her national high school exams, excelling in math and science. Despite her talent for STEM, she also had a passion for psychology. She was granted a scholarship, studying math and physics to later teach. The rest of her academic career would go on to become an historic journey.

Najat began studying at Cairo University, where she  earned a Bachelor’s of Science in physics and chemistry. In 1962, Khelil was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Ohio State University, where she received a Master’s. Five days after arriving at Ohio State, she met her future husband, fellow student, Chakib Khelil.

At Ohio State, Najat struggled with discrimination as the only female student in all of her classes. From where she sat in class to homework review sessions, her male colleagues “avoided [her] like the plague.” Khelil knew she had to work much harder and make the best grades to prove that she deserved to be there.

After Chakib and her got married, the world began talking about nuclear physics and space travel, inspiring the new couple to apply to doctorate programs in the United States. They were skeptical, however, about getting accepted, so they made plans to settle in Chakib’s homeland, Algeria. As they were preparing to leave, Khelil and her husband both received calls that they had been granted scholarships to attend Texas A&M University.

Although they began their programs at the same time, Najat became pregnant with their son, delaying her studies. After her husband finished his PhD, he moved to Dallas while Najat stayed in College Station to finish her program. The commutes to and from the two cities were difficult for both parents and son. Najat decided to transfer to North Texas State University to finish her doctorate, becoming the first woman to receive a PhD in this field.

Immediately after Najat finished school, she moved to Algeria with her husband where she began teaching at the University of Algeria. After six years, they came back to the U.S. on a U.N. visa due to her husband’s job at the World Bank. Having difficulty finding a job at first, she ended up in a volunteer research position at the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While there, she met the head of the physics department at George Washington University who offered her a teaching position.

While at George Washington University, she decided to change her career path. As the situation in the Middle East worsened, Khelil felt obligated to do something, so she, along with the help of others, established the Arab Women’s Council in 1982, serving as its president. Through the Council, she became very involved in advocacy around the conflicts in the Middle East, attending conferences, seminars, and meetings. Without much time for teaching, Najat decided to pursue women’s and Arab American issues full time.

The Arab Women’s Council originally centered around political activism, calling on the Arab world and its leaders to intervene and stop the atrocities that were taking place in Lebanon at the time. Its mission later shifted to be more educational and informational. The Council’s current agenda involves giving lectures at universities and attending conferences to present an accurate image of the modern Arab woman, who is often “misunderstood and misconstrued.” They also work to “train Arab women for the Arab world.”

The Council received two grants from the State Department through the Office of Education and Cultural Affairs to conduct leadership training for women. The program began with Syrian women coming to D.C. to attend two weeks of workshops about leadership training and on how to “establish, organize, and strategize in a non-governmental organization.” They were then awarded another grant to do the same work in Morocco, Syria, and Qatar, as well as a follow-up program in Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Oman.

This was considered groundbreaking as it was the first time a program was officially operated between the Syrian government and the U.S. Embassy. The Minister of Labor and Public Works in Syria even came and opened the workshop.

Khelil has devoted many years to leading national organizations which address issues related to the Middle East as well as conflict management. Khelil was a founding member and served as the first president of the Union of Palestinian American Women. She was a founding member and national president of the Palestinian American Congress. She served on the National Board of Directors of the United Holy Land Fund and the National Board of Directors of the Interreligious Committee on Peace in the Middle East, and she also served on the American Task Force on Palestine.

Najat was the national president of the Palestine youth organization, ROOTS, the vice president of the Muslim Women Association, a member of AAI’s national policy council, and the co-coordinator of the Dialogue Project between American and Jewish Palestinian Women. She also served  on the Board of Directors of Partners for Peace, a member of the National Board of Directors of the Rainbow Coalition, and a member of the executive committee of the U.N. North America Coordinating Committee for the Non-Governmental Organizations on the Question of Palestine. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the United Palestinian Appeal (UPA), is the Chairperson of the National Arab American Women’s Association (NAAWA) and the Vice President of the organization, Know Thy Heritage.

Through her work with the Arab Women’s Council Research and Education Fund and ROOTS, she was instrumental in organizing and leading student trips to different countries in the Middle East to educate them on the Palestinian question. Khelil is very supportive of students visiting Palestine because she believes that it helps develop of greater understanding and empathy towards the issues there.

Her advice to young Arab Americans and immigrants? Assimilate with the cultures of the United States. while also maintaining your heritage. “We have to live the American way in order for us to get what we want, it’s not that we are forgetting our heritage or who we are, but we have a better chance to introduce our heritage to the system here.”

Khelil appeared twice in Marquis “Who’s Who of American Women” and “Who’s Who in the Arab-American Community.” She was honored by the General Delegation of the PLO to the U.S., and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the fourth annual Gala of the American Task Force on Palestine in 2009 “for the countless hours she has devoted to conflict resolution.”

“Receiving a lifetime achievement award does not mean that my work is done. On the contrary. This will strengthen my resolve even more so because the modest work we have started needs to continue as the Palestinian question requires our commitment, support and attention. More than ever before, we need to solidify our efforts to bring a just and honorable peace to the Middle East where all people can live side-by-side in peace, dignity and without fear.”

Allison Ulven is a summer 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.