The fight for human rights remains an intellectual battle. Maher Gabra narrates his journey as a promoter of civil and human rights in Egypt, eventually navigating his way to the United States. He discusses how freedom, pluralism, and democracy in America has further influenced his passion. This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.
My name is Maher Gabra. I started activism when I was twenty one. I started actually in the mental health field as a psychologist so that one day I would be very interested in politics. I know that since I was very young, I was very passionate about how to stop child abuse, specifically domestic abuse and abuse in schools. So I worked for nine years as a psychologist and mental health educator. I was giving a lot of training to parents and college teachers, social workers country. Throughout this journey, I started to feel that there was a more systematic problem. It’s not only about counseling. There’s something wrong with the culture, there is something wrong that needs to be addressed on a national level, not only on an individual level.
At this point, I started to feel that I want to do something on the macro level, not on the micro level. So I felt like “OK I want to do something different.” So, in 2006, I co-founded an organization called the ‘Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood Conditions’, and now it has become the leading organization in Child Rights in Egypt. One of the things that we requested is to criminalize FGM. It’s not your right as a parent to enact this horrible practice on your young ones. It is a crime. So we wanted to make it a crime. I remember one of the parliamentary members from the Muslim Brotherhood said, “Mr. Maher, what you are saying is totally against Islam.”
In the wake of this, I became much more interested in politics, and believed we need a systematic change, a political change. In the same year, I got Fulbright scholarship to do my Masters here in the United States. So, I came, I traveled for the first time to the US. I went to Boston, a very nice city. I loved the place, I loved the university; it was Boston College. I completed my Masters. I went back in March 2010, and I remember when I was going to the airport the day I left Boston one of my friends was giving me a ride and she asked me a question. She said “Maher, what is the thing that you’re going to miss in the U.S?”, and without even thinking for a second, I said “freedom.”
So, if I can take this freedom with me I will be so happy, but of course you cannot take it with you and your luggage. Yeah, you can take other things like you can take food, you can take photos, and whatever, but you cannot take freedom. I went back to Egypt full of passion of how to bring this culture to my country. I believe that we face two big problems; religious extremism or fundamentalism and military dictatorship. If we do not solve those problems in the Middle East in general, not only in Egypt, nobody will be safe. So, this is my message: support those who fight hard every single day to change the discourse in the Middle East because it’s an intellectual battle before anything else. Yes, the military solution is important but at the same time, if we do not defeat the ideology, there is no way we would have peace and we will continue talking about poor victims of war, poor women who get sexually enslaved. We have to end this and the way to start is to defeat them through knowledge.”