COEX Commencement Speaker: Hend Nafie, COEX'19

May 19, 2019

Dean Weil, respected faculty, families and fellow classmates, on behalf of the COEX class of 2019, I extend our gratitude. We have gone through endless work and sleepless nights. We are here today because we made it to the finish line hand in hand. Congratulations!

Twenty years ago, I could never have imagined I would be here today giving the graduation speech for one of the finest schools of social policy in the world. A girl of my background wouldn’t have considered high school possible let alone graduate school. Yet against all odds, here I am.

I grew up in a patriarchal Egyptian village in the Nile delta. I was denied basic rights and robbed of agency because of my gender. I was pressured to drop out of school. I fought for my right to education because education is a silver bullet to overcome all challenges and kryptonite to patriarchal injustice. Fortunately, my aunt, a strong-minded woman, supported my decision. She didn’t want my right to education denied as hers was. She worked hard to support me financially and emotionally. My eternal gratitude goes to her.

On January 25, 2011, revolution happened. I joined my fellow Egyptians at Tahrir Square. The revolution was not just “bread, freedom, and social justice,” but a personal struggle for gender equality and basic rights. I was arrested, tortured and released, and put under house arrest by my family. I was told “I brought shame upon them.” My aunt was also shamed because she “failed" to obtain my obedience. I revolted. Change happens one protest at a time, conversations can become songs of protest and agents of change. Standing here now, I am a living proof that a woman is not half human, as many believe. She can lead a successful life both professionally and personally.

Sentenced to life imprisonment, I fled Egypt in 2015. I left with the goal to one day return home - I was warned that this may never happen. Yet I keep fighting, resisting, dreaming and learning. At Heller I found the community I needed. Where else could I meet people from six continents in one class? Heller equipped me with the knowledge, skills and tools needed for my fight for peace and social justice, human rights and my right of return, a hope I will never lose!

I come from a country where the president said in December 2016, “What would education do for a lost country?” This regime has imprisoned nearly 70,000 Egyptians for protest and opposition. Sadly, Egypt is not a unique case. Many oppressive regimes intentionally keep the poor poorer by depriving them of decent education and imprison them for expressing their thoughts. We learned about such regimes in our classes and we learned how we can fight it.

I am a product of a strong woman who came from Egypt to continue to support me. My aunt is here today. No words can express my gratitude, Shoukran Gazilan Khalti (thank you deeply my aunt). You made this happen, you taught me to be a strong woman and teach others.

Every one of us has something to offer, to fight for a world free from hatred, racism, discrimination, wars and violence. Let’s get out there and fight for it.

We can change the world. We will change the world. We already are.

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