Palestinian Woman's Journey in Cleveland
Ms. Shirien Muntaser describes herself as a lifelong learner and hopes to become an even better person with each passing day. Along these lines, she thoughtfully contends that all of her experiences, even those that were negative at the time, contributed to fashioning her into the person she is today. In our opinion, this is truly exceptional as she is not afraid to step out of her comfort zone and pursue her own personal goals while respecting the beautiful aspects of her Middle Eastern culture and heritage as well as her Islamic faith.
Shirien was raised in a very traditional home; she loves her family very much and appreciates all that they have done for her. She is most grateful that her parents made the decision to immigrate to the United States from Palestine back in 1980 when she was only three years-old and her little sister was less than two. All told, her parents would have a total of ten children, eight of whom were born here in the United States.
When they first came to this country, the family lived in an apartment in the Bay Ridge area of New York City that was located above an art gallery. Living in so close to that art gallery gave her her first exposure to art that led to a lifelong fascination. Later, while she attended grade school, Shirien went with her classmates to view a performance of "The Nutcracker" and so began Shiren's passion for the dramatic arts as well as visual.
It was great growing up in that particular section of New York, she says, because it was very multicultural and Shirien enjoyed a wide range of friendships. She also frequently visited her grandmother who lived in an Arabic section of the city so she remained well-versed in her native Arabic culture.
Upon arrival in the United States, her father got a job in a grocery store. He learned the business and several years later he was able to open up his own establishment. Shirien recalls that, in order to support his family, he worked long hours each day for seven days a week and the only time she and her siblings got to see him was when they helped their dad out in the store accomplishing all types of tasks and learning the meaning of good customer service.
Later, in 1993, the family moved to the Cleveland area where her father, a budding entrepreneur who was fast learning how to conduct business transactions in the United States, opened another enterprise that proved to be very lucrative. This points to one reason that Shirien loves living here in the United States; that there are opportunities here for anyone regardless of one's age and ethnicity-it is only a question of one's willingness to vigorously pursue them as her father did.
In 1995, when she was eighteen, Shirien and her father became United States citizens and took the naturalization oath at the same ceremony. Since her mother devoted herself to taking care of her family and didn't spend as much time outside of the home as her husband and children, it took her longer to learn English. In the end, her efforts were triumphant and she, too, became a United States citizen back in 2015 to the delight of her family.
As for Shirien, it was around this time in the mid-1990's that, in the tradition of her native land, she entered into an arranged marriage. Several years later, her son Ibrahim was born and the young family settled in Lakewood.
Although her formal education was pushed aside, Shirien participated in a lot of community events with Ibrahim, in particular those that involved theatre. She remembers with affection the both of them taking part in Parade-in-the-Circle. In addition, she pursued her love of poetry and wrote quite a simple poems about what was taking place in her life at the time.
Finally, she decided she wanted to continue her education and enrolled in Cleveland Christian Academy in order that she might earn her high school diploma. Shirien really loved being exposed to beliefs other than Islam and developed an admiration of all religious faiths.
It was around 2014 that Shirien and her husband separated (and later divorced) because she couldn't grow as she wanted to as a person and remain in a relationship where she was expected to fulfill a rigidly traditional role that was just too confining for her as an individual.
Shirien was thus empowered to pursue her dream to continue her education, which she did at the Western Campus of Tri-C. She earned her Associate's degree and loved taking classes involving humanities and the arts in which she excelled. In fact, in 2016 she was named Tri-C Board Student Scholar.
She really benefitted from taking part in the extra-curricular activities that Tri-C had to offer such as student government and various clubs. Accordingly, under the mentorship of our friend Professor Susan Lohwater, who puts together "Culture Shock" each year, Shirien became involved in social justice activities and even enrolled in a three-week program in Costa Rica in order to earn a certificate in conflict resolution. In return, Shirien introduced Professor Lohwater to the leadership of Cleveland Peace Action and productive relationships were formed.
Shirien really lit up, though, as she described how she gained the confidence to continue to write poetry regarding subjects that she had genuine passion for and read her poems in public. Among the topics that she has addressed are alternatives to violence, childhood poverty, and the conditions in Palestine. We ourselves first heard her read one of her works at a Culture Shock event and she has since shared her talents in such venues as the People's Justice Convention at the RNC in 2016.
One of the more interesting things that Shirien did during her time at Tri-C was an internship in which she got to act as the Arabic Liaison for the West Side Market in Cleveland. She really liked this position because she got to work with some 450 vendors and, of course, put her newly acquired conflict resolution skills to work.
In May of 2017, she organized a party at La Centre in Westlake; while it was officially to celebrate her graduation from Tri-C but to Shirien, it was more to acknowledge her own development as an emancipated person of diversity.
We attended this affair and the guest list included much of Shirien's family including her mother and father and quite a few of our mutual friends like Mr. Joe Meissner, Ms. Gia Hoa Ryan, Ms. Mari Galindo-DaSilva, Mr. Pierre Bejjani, and Mr. Asim Datta as well as Professor Frederick Perry from the Theatre Arts Dept. at Tri-C West and Ms. Christiana Vespucci, its then-student body president. To be sure, our colleague Mr. George Koussa wanted to be there but had a scheduling conflict.
Throughout the evening, Ibrahim proudly served as his mother's escort while we were all treated to fine food, good fellowship, readings of several poems by Shirien, and a taped dialogue involving Shirien and her good friend then-Mayor Ann Marie Donegan of Olmsted Falls who appointed Shirien to the Parks and Recreation Board and collaborated with her on a project involving women's empowerment.
Upon her graduation from Tri-C, Shirien enrolled at CSU and was planning to study public administration and urban studies. She ultimately decided that this was not what her calling was. After taking time to do some re-evaluation, Shirien decided to "aim high and not be scared" by pursuing one of her dreams which was to attend Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea She received a scholarship that enabled her to do so.
At this time, she is attending Baldwin-Wallace full-time as a psychology major with a minor in family studies. Eventually she would like to work with married couples, children, and families that are plagued by domestic violence. Her son, Ibrahim, now eighteen, is also interested in psychology, and, is following in the footsteps of his mother by taking classes at Tri-C West.
Although her coursework takes up much of her time, Shirien still manages to be active in such organizations as the Cleveland Public Theatre and is becoming more involved in the Cleveland American Middle East Organization (C.A.M.E.O.). She is the Honorary Palestinian Ambassador for Clevelandpeople.com and plans to take part in One World Day on September 16th. We hope we will see her (and you!) there.
"Family dynamics change with each generation," said Shirien as she noted the evolution of her family since since immigrating to the United States. Although, her sisters are all home makers by profession, they are very firm about their daughters being properly educated.
Shirien, herself, loves Cleveland because it is to her "a mellow, calm city and it seems to be very open and friendly; a big colony of people who actually care about peace and diversity."
As for her social consciousness, Shirien does not categorize herself as a feminist but instead as a "person who believes in women's empowerment and I want to be a role model for my nieces as well as for my son."
As we wrote before, Shirien sees herself as someone on a continuous journey and is hopeful that by sharing her story with us as she is doing in this interview, she will inspire others. She believes that this is consistent with her Islamic faith because it has taught her that one will ultimately be held acountable for what one does in one's life so she wants to take part in as many positive actions as possible.