Roughly 50 guests gathered at the Bethesda Lutheran Church on Saturday afternoon to hear two seasoned activists discuss their experiences fighting for vulnerable groups.

Organized by the Tree of Life Educational Fund, which focuses on Native American, Palestinian and black issues, the “Courageous Women of Resistance” event on Oct. 21 featured Fayrouz Sharqawi, the advocacy coordinator of Grassroots Jerusalem, and Madonna Thunder Hawk, a tribal liaison for the Lakota People’s Law Project. Sharqawi and Thunder Hawk reflected on their experiences advocating for vulnerable communities, particularly the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Palestinians in Jerusalem.

“A community that is poor is a community that can’t liberate itself,” Sharqawi said.

Sharqawi, an expert in policies to resist Israeli governance of Jerusalem, began her speech by outlining several Israeli policies she considers unjust. She highlighted various policies — displacement, attacks on Palestinian lands and homes, the rise of Israeli settlements, land confiscation techniques and the lack of schools and medical centers — that she argued are used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impoverish Palestinians in Jerusalem and limit their numbers.

Palestinians, she said, are under both “bureaucratic and military occupation,” which makes all aspects of life challenging.

“We have to fight for jobs, we have to fight for electricity and water, and so people are preoccupied all the time surviving in Jerusalem,” Sharqawi said. “And that is a winning equation for an occupier, because this way people do not have the time, the space and mind to strategize long-term.”

Sharqawi then outlined the initiatives of Grassroots Jerusalem, the main aim of which is to develop a long-term Palestinian plan for the city and to garner global support for the Palestinian cause.

Thunder Hawk steered the conversation toward domestic issues. A member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Thunder Hawk has worked as an activist for the rights of indigenous peoples for several decades. She co-founded Women of All Red Nations, as well as the Black Hills Alliance, which prevented corporate uranium mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Most recently, she camped out for months at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to oppose construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“People don’t understand when we say we are the land and we fight for what we have left … [we are] probably the last community that is land-based” she said.

Thunder Hawk recounted her experience at the pipeline site, where she advised organizers on protesting strategies. Now, her tribe is involved in the legal battles over the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, with hundreds of cases still pending for those arrested at the camp.

Thunder Hawk said it was a pleasure to watch resistance to the pipeline grow, as people of different backgrounds helped induce divestment from Dakota Access Pipeline shareholders and furthered the tribe’s other delay tactics.

Still, Thunder Hawk warned attendees not to get too caught up in small victories.

“It’s not an event … we’re in this for the long haul,” Thunder Hawk said. “We have never had it good with the federal government, so now the rest of the country is feeling it, but it’s nothing new to us … it’s just a continuation of the struggle.”

Several attendees interviewed said they were impressed by the event and were excited to learn from the speakers’ first-hand experiences.

Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at Yale Law School Monica Maldonado, who has been involved in the activism for indigenous peoples’ rights, said Sharqawi “blew her away.” She noted similarities between the struggles of the two communities discussed at the event.

“[The Palestinian situation] does sound exactly like what I know about the indigenous fights and struggles that have been going on for 500 years,” Maldonado said. “I’m shocked to hear that that is also happening in Palestine.”

Isabel Bysiewicz |