The executive director of international charitable organization WE Charity was a child refugee in Gaza, and uses her experience to empower youth activists. 

When Dalal Al-Waheidi was 12, she was a refugee in Gaza, some 800 miles from the only place she knew as home: Kuwait. Although she was Palestinian by blood, she had only visited Gaza once as a toddler. Aside from her immediate family, everything she knew and loved—her friends, her school, her relative freedom—was back in Kuwait. Then, in 1991, the Gulf War changed everything. 

Aftter Palestinian leadership supported the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Palestinians throughout the Middle East were systematically ostracized by an anti-Iraq coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. Al-Waheidi and her two sisters could no longer attend public school in Kuwait; her older brother was detained at the Cairo airport as he tried to return to college; her parents, who were teachers, could not find work. And so, Al-Waheidi found herself in a new, but also war-torn, country—this time wearing a refugee school uniform, with no friends, straining against the conservative strictures meant to limit girls’ lives. And she wanted to do something about it.

Craig Kielburger was just 12 when he founded the charity Free the Children (now known as WE Charity)—where Al-Waheidi is now an executive director. Inspired by the tragic story of Iqbal Masih, a boy who had been sold into slavery at age 4, and was murdered at 12 for, many believe, speaking out against child slavery in the Pakistani carpet industry, Kielburger gathered dozens of his seventh grade classmates to raise awareness and money to fight child labor around the world. That first, small effort in 1995 blossomed into what WE Charity is today: a multifaceted international charity and educational partner whose programs are based on youth activism. 

The organization has also has 16,000 WE Schools in the UK and North America, where young people are given leadership and development skills to help them carry out at least one local and one global social action, and a WE College in Kenya. Its WE Villages offer a sustainable development model to address poverty in nine countries, while WE Day events celebrate the efforts of young people who are changing the world, one social action at a time.  

Dalal Al-Waheidi visiting Ecuador.

“Every young person has an issue that hits them in the heart,” then 16-year-old Kielburger told Yes Magazine, when Free the Children had already earned national prominence in Canada. “But I believe that society has taught them they don’t have the power to change things, that they have to wait until they’re adults to achieve results.”

And yet, as the history of WE Charity has proven—with some 1,500 classrooms and schools built to date, over 1 million people provided with access to clean water, more than 15 million meals produced for families in need, and more than 30,000 women given financial independence—young people can and do have the power, and they can and do achieve results. It makes sense, then, that 12-year-olds are a target demographic for WE Charity.

“That’s the critical age when they make life changes and decide on the path they will take,” Al Waheidi explained. Many 12-year-olds are waking up to the injustices of the world and their own power, when given the chance. And it’s not just 12-year-olds—WE Charity works to harness the energy of all young people with international programs that span from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

Al-Waheidi is deeply proud of her work with youth, and of how WE Charity “engages young people, gives them the tools and the knowledge necessary to create their own path of change.” Al-Waheidi often thinks of herself at their age. “I was fortunate to get all the things I did,” she said, pointing to leadership courses at the YMCA.

“Imagine all the other girls in Gaza or other conflict zones, if they had the opportunity to attend WE Day inspirational events, to get service training, to learn about social entrepreneurship or even well-being and mental health. What type of growth would we have?”

WE Day—huge, celebrity-filled events that fill stadiums and celebrate youth empowerment and service—is one of the cornerstones of WE Charity and celebrates the work that youth have accomplished. Neil Patrick Harris, Chance the Rapper, Selena Gomez, Mahershala Ali and Natalie Portman headlined a recent WE Day in Los Angeles, which boasted more than 16,000 youth attendees. “You can’t buy a ticket to WE Day,” Al-Waheidi explained. “You earn your way in through service as part of our WE Schools program, a yearlong service initiative. 

“At 12, I wasn’t celebrated,” Al Waheidi said. “I was targeted.” 

Dalal Al-Waheidi and Malala Yousafzai.

Indeed, at that age, in Gaza, Al-Waheidi had limited freedom as a refugee and a girl. “It’s easy for boys to go play soccer outside,” she noted. “As soon as girls hit puberty, you can see that she’s become a young woman, and it’s not acceptable to be playing in the street.” At the time, she wanted what most 12-year-old girls want: to go to school, to fit in, to go to the beach, to wear the clothes she wanted to wear—like shorts. But girls her age were being married off.

Luckily, her family happened to live near a YMCA which was a co-ed space, with activities girls could participate in. It was a lifeline.

Although Al-Waheidi felt stigmatized by the refugee uniform she was made to wear and was frustrated that school was so often disrupted by the ongoing war, she valued the education she received. In the refugee school, she had the opportunity to give a speech about the frustrating lack of activities for girls in Gaza—in English (which, she jokes, she learned from watching Top Gun.) Her speech so impressed a visiting foreign minister from Norway that he helped her secure a free scholarship to the what is now the UWC Red Cross Nordican international baccalaureate school with 200 students from 85 different countries. Al-Waheidi would be the first Palestinian to attend.

While people burned tires in the streets in Gaza, Al-Waheidi, then 17, practiced her English in a village in western Norway, worrying that she wouldn’t get any of the jokes. For the first time, she met an Israeli who wasn’t a soldier, and their connection transformed her sense of place in the world. “My perception completely changed,” said Al-Waheidi. “[Israelis are] young people like us. We share similar aspirations and thoughts. That experience opened the world to me, knowing that you need to embrace other cultures despite our different narratives.” 

Back in Gaza, her family faced backlash— particularly her father, who came from a long-established, traditional Bedouin family. “They said to him, directly and indirectly, ‘How could you send a girl, a 17-year-old, to boarding school where there are boys and girls? How do you know what’s going to happen?’” she recalled. But he believed strongly in education, especially for his daughters. And her mother, a fiercely independent woman who was one of the first women to drive in Gaza, wholeheartedly agreed. 

In Norway, Al-Waheidi leaned into the strength she had developed from being a displaced outsider who had faced discrimination for her nationality, her religion, her gender. “I’ve always tried to defy the norm and what’s socially constructed as acceptable for a woman who is Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern,” she said.

To that end, it wasn’t exactly a surprise when, after two years in Norway, Al-Waheidi called her family to say that she wasn’t coming home, but instead going to Canada, where she had earned a full college scholarship to Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. “When I was at university, I called again to say, ‘Oh, I want to go to Ecuador for nine months to work with street children and learn about development.’ They got used to it by the end of the day,” she said, laughing.   

Then, in 2002, she called to say she was going to intern for a Canadian charity called Free the Children. She said she would stay for two years—that was 17 years ago. 

In those intervening years, Al-Waheidi became the executive director of WE Charity then the executive director of WE Day Global. Throughout, she has been deeply committed to advocating for youth, fighting racism, championing education, and uplifting young girls and women around the globe.

“You have to believe in their ability to be agents of change,” said Al-Waheidi. “It’s about including [young people], giving them the tools and skills at a very young age. Why do we have to wait until tomorrow? Young people can make positive change now and are leaders of today.”

Now a mother to two young girls herself—a 4-year-old and toddler—Al-Waheidi’s commitment to girls and women has grown even stronger. 

“I want them to understand where they come from, and the privilege it is to live in Canada,” she said.. “And, also, to be aware that there are other girls who don’t have the same opportunities.”

To that end, she marries her work with her international efforts for WE Charity  with small actions at home. Thinking deeply about the stories they read, the language they use, to create an inclusive community, but also give them strength to stand up for themselves—even, at this point, if it’s just on the playground.

“My mom always said, ‘Be the woman that you want to be and create your own path,’” said Al-Waheidi. “That’s what I continue to strive for. To be the woman I want to be—and I want the same for my daughters, to be the girls and women they want to be.” Not the woman that anyone, in whatever society, ever expected.

Laura Lambert is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. You can read her work on Facebook.