WARREN, NJ – As Engy Gadmawla, Watchung Hills Regional High School (WHRHS) Class of 2014, embarks on her last semester of undergraduate studies at Drew University, Madison, she does so remembering her very first class on her very first day as a WHRHS Warrior in September 2010.

She was born, and spent her first 10 years living in Cairo, Egypt, before she moved in 2003, just two years after 9/11, to Watchung with her mom, dad, and sister. 

“I grew up being called a terrorist,” she told the audience at the “Facing History and Ourselves” annual New York Benefit Dinner, Thursday, Oct. 19, at Pier 60 at Chelsea Piers, New York City. 

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Between 750 and 800 people attended the dinner. EngyGadelmawla was one of three key speakers at the event, and one of four people presented with Upstander Awards. Others receiving Upstander Awards were: Jennifer and Peter Buffett and the NoVo Foundation; and actress, playwright and activist Anna Deavere Smith.

It is the same annual benefit dinner that in 2014 recognized the work of WHRHS Social Studies Teachers Jamie Lott-Jones and Mary Sok, and WHRHS students Engy Gadelmawla, Catherine Higgins and Monica Mahal, for creating and implementing the WHRHS “White-Out to Erase Bullying” campaign. That campaign brought together some 13 New Jersey school districts and raised awareness of bullying and upstander behavior. Lott-Jones and Sok accompanied Gadelmawla to the banquet along with members of her family.

Rising out of that effort, WHRHS students helped to literally coin a new word in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to describe a new concept. It is “Upstander,” someone who is different from being merely a “bystander,” someone who, in effect, “faces history and ourselves,” and tries to do something about it.

In 2014, the WHRHS teachers and students received recognition at the Facing History and Ourselves Benefit Dinner: They were recognized as “Upstanders.” Last Fall, Engy Gadelmawla received her second Upstander recognition, for everything she has done since then. She was asked to be one of the keynote speakers at the 2017 Facing History and Ourselves Benefit Dinner.

She might say, it was everything that has happened in her life, both before and after that fateful day in September 2010, when she entered her “very first class on her very first day as a WHRHS Warrior.”

Early Struggles

Engy set the stage leading up to that day. She recalled her struggles when she first came to the United States. 

“I grew up being called a terrorist,” she opened her talk. “I think I was 10 or 11 when I finally got up enough courage to ask my mom what a terrorist was. When I was 6-years-old we moved from Cairo to the United States. It was 2003, just a few years after 9/11.”

She continued, “We lived in Central New Jersey in a predominantly white neighborhood. Kids were constantly saying things like, ‘Hey Engy, don’t blow up the building.’ I remember in the fifth grade it was 9/11 after the Memorial Moment of Silence. The kids standing next to me said, ‘Why are you being silent? You probably don’t even care.’ I think that hurt the most.”

She said she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t be part of the community, and that she wasn’t allowed to remember those who had been hurt so badly. The discrimination was isolating. She started to reject her culture. She picked up English faster than others in her family, and at times, that and normal growing up tensions between parents and a pre-teen were irritated further if Engy chose to talk back to her parents in English, not their native Arabic. That, then, became yet another volatile irritant to normal family tension.

“My Mom and Dad were teachers in Egypt,” she said. “They moved us to the United States so my sister and I would have a better life. They didn’t want me to lose who I was. And now I understand that… but back then I didn’t. I just shut down. I didn’t want to be Muslim. I didn’t want to be Eqyptian. I just wanted to be Engy from Watchung, the typical American teenager.”

In Middle School, she said, her outfits changed. “I stopped praying. And I stopped reading The Qur’an. On top of all the bullying I was facing, we were also living the immigrant experience. My Dad drove buses, and my Mom walked three miles to work at the bakery at the super market. They did this so my sister and I could have a better life.”

She went back to visit Eqypt the summer before starting at WHRHS. Back in Eqypt, “they joked that I was too Americanized. Entrance to the National Museum in Eqypt is free to citizens. They allowed my sister to go in… and yet they tried to make me pay.” Museum workers were convinced she was not Eqyptian. “I felt so lost,” she said.

One Class Changed Everything

“However, on my first day of high school, my first period class was my ‘Facing History’ class,” she told the audience at the Facing History and Ourselves Banquet. “That’s when it all changed. Ms. Lott-Jones – she is sitting right over there – started with the poem, “First They came.” The poem was written by the German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984), an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler. He eventually spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

Engy shared the poem with the Facing History and Ourselves Annual Dinner audience, reading:

“First they came for the Socialists, but I was not a Socialist and I did not speak out/ Then they came for the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist, so I did not speak out/ Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out/ Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Engy took on the role of teacher, “The narrator is the ultimate bystander. If you are not willing to speak up for others, how can you expect others to speak up for you?”

Continuing, she shared: “For me, this poem is a daily reminder that we all have the power to be ‘perpetrators, bystanders or upstanders.’ Facing History has taught me that it is our decision what role we take.”

She said she came to the realization that she no longer “had to be ashamed of who I was.” So, she created a Middle School curriculum focused on identity. She worked with 7th and 8th graders, teaching them how to be upstanders, often by simply doing the little things each day that in the long run make the big difference. While at WHRHS, students began wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan: “Speak Up, Stand Up, Stop Hate.”

Engy said she also happened to befriend a fellow classmate who was Jewish. The two taught each other about their respective Jewish and Muslim heritages. When she was asked questions about the Muslim heritage that she did not know the answer to, it became an opportunity for Engy to connect with her mother, to learn from her Mom. “I got to learn more about myself in that situation.”

Likewise, her father was a History teacher back in Egypt, but in Eqypt, very little was taught or understood about the Holocaust. When she and her family went to Washington, D.C., she made sure she took her Dad to see the Holocaust Museum. She had been there before with her WHRHS Facing History class. 

“It was so moving to see my father’s face as he walked through the halls, as he looked at the shoes, the actual hair, the photos of the children affected. It was the first time my Dad and I really connected over our shared passion for history,” she said.

“When he went back to Eqypt recently, he shared with others what he had seen. Some were in shock, and others were in disbelief. But I was so proud of my father for making the decision to speak up. It is these kinds of conversations that will create change.”

Who She Wants To Be

Engy said she chose Drew University for her undergraduate school because, among other assets, it allowed her to take a class that included spending two days a week studying conflict resolution and international affairs through various bodies of the United Nations. Twice a week, she went into New York City to learn at the United Nations, an education in itself.

She said she hopes to work in law enforcement, go to graduate school, and perhaps someday work for the Department of Homeland Security. “My goal is to work on mitigating radicalization through community building.” She has taken full advantage of several living learning summer internships, research opportunities and trips abroad. Among them were, starting at WHRHS and continuing through Drew, ALA Girls State, sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary. She also had an internship with New Jersey Homeland Security. One particularly memorable experience abroad was, remarkably, in County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, she said.

She concluded her remarks by thanking her family. They have always been so supportive, she said.

In particular, she said: “To my Mom, you have always been a social justice warrior your whole life, thank you for teaching me to always be compassionate and to always work to understand others. To my sister, for holding my hand through it all.”

She thanked the Facing History and Ourselves organization. “I want to thank you all for this wonderful honor,” she said. “Thank you for investing in Upstanders everywhere.

She thanked WHRHS, for giving her the education and tools to ‘Speak Up, to Stand up and to Stop Hate. “For that I am so grateful,” she said.

“Being Muslim doesn’t mean that I am a terrorist,” she said. “My identity has given me the power to change people’s perspectives. I am learning to speak Arabic now. I’m finding my way back into my culture. I’m defining who I want to be.”

She is an Upstander.

About Facing History and Ourselves

For more information about Facing History and Ourselves, go to https://www.facinghistory.org/why-facing-history.

WHRHS was introduced to the Facing History organization and teachers' professional training in their pedagogical approach is continually supported by Sheryl and Larry Wyman of Warren Township, according to Teachers Jamie Lott-Jones and Mary Sok.

Among a broad presentation of information about the organization, the Web site explains in the section titled, “Why Facing History and Ourselves.” It states: “Every day, reports of incidents of bigotry and hatred across the globe show us how fragile democracy can be. Through rigorous historical analysis combined with the study of human behavior, Facing History’s approach heightens students’ understanding of racism, religious intolerance, and prejudice; increases students’ ability to relate history to their own lives; and promotes greater understanding of their roles and responsibilities in a democracy.”

According to the Web site, “The Facing History approach is a synthesis of compelling content and rigorous inquiry, not a specific sequence of lessons. Each Facing History class—whether history, civics, humanities, or literature; unit or elective—is built around our core methodology, which integrates the study of history and literature with ethical decision-making and innovative teaching strategies.

“Our Approach: This approach enables middle and high school teachers to promote students’ historical understanding, critical thinking, empathy, and social–emotional learning, and facilitate transformative dialogue in their classrooms. As students explore the complexities of history and human behavior, they reflect on the choices they confront today and consider how they can make a difference.

“The Scope and Sequence: Although the specific content, readings, and activities may vary, every Facing History and Ourselves course is built around a core of common elements. This structure, which Facing History calls its ‘scope and sequence,’ organizes the inquiry and shapes the journey that students and teachers will take together in the classroom. This journey of discovery about oneself and others is a key component of our pedagogy.”

A Facing History course begins with an exploration of individual and group behavior, the Web site explains. “Who are we? How is our identity formed? How do we acquire membership in a group? Who belongs? Who doesn’t and why? During this phase, students probe themes of identity, individuality, conformity, stereotyping, group loyalty, and responsibilities to those beyond one’s immediate circle.”

Students then apply the concepts related to individual and group behavior to study history or a piece of literature and its historical context. They then move from thought to judgment, they discuss questions of good and evil, guilt and responsibility, prevention and punishment. How do students understand and judge the actions and inactions of the people whose lives and choices they have studied? 

“The journey then returns to themes developed earlier in the course, as students explore the ways we remember the past, and how those memories shape the present. What needs to be remembered and why?

“The unit ends with stories of individuals who have made a difference in their community and nation, delving into the choices of those who have had an impact in large and small ways.”

WHRHS CAPTIONS 2017-18 Facing History Award EngyGadelmawla


WHRHS PHOTOS Engy Gadelmawla

Engy Gadelmawla of Watchung, a 2014 graduate of WatchungHills Regional High School (WHRHS), currently a Senior at Drew University, Madison, was the featured speaker at the “Facing History and Ourselves” annual New York Benefit Dinner. Born in Cairo, Eqypt, who with her family moved to Watchung in 2003, Gadelmawla describes how her “Facing History” class as a freshman at WHRHS made such a difference in her life.