Dr Majeda Awawdeh defines survival. Enduring a marriage where domestic violence was a common occurrence, she survived and eventually prospered. She tells SBS Arabic24 that education is the key, especially for women.
Palestinian migrant Dr Majeda Awawdeh was recognised in 2019 as a finalist in the small business category at the Ethnic Business Awards.
She runs the Global Education Academy, a Sydney-based business she founded eight years ago, which provides tutoring programs for students from Pre-Kindergarten to Year 10, through a unique philosophy of transformational learning and ‘teaching for understanding’.
Dr Awawdeh received her PhD in education majoring in mathematics from the University of New South Wales, but a career as an academic was never on the cards. She instead wanted to assist the country’s brightest young minds to succeed in their academic endeavours.
“I didn’t want to sit in an office and write papers, I felt this won’t change anything, so I decided to be the change I want to see in the world,” she told SBS Arabic24.
“I applied the theories I learnt on the ground and it worked. The students' performance and understanding of the subject improved.”
The positive mark she’d left on the lives of thousands of young students over the years would never have been possible if she didn’t decide to take a stand and end her abusive marriage.
A life of two chapters
Dr Awawdeh’s life can be divided into two chapters, one which began 14 years ago when she migrated to Australia and the other which started when she was married off as a teenager.
She was born in a small village not far from the city of Nazareth in northern Israel.
“My mum was only 17 years old [when I was born]. She was married when she was 16. This was very common in Arab villages in Israel at that time – during the ‘60s and early ‘70s,” she said.
“Both my parents only completed a primary school education due to many factors. The main factor was poverty.”
Her childhood was happy, but things changed during the mid-80s when a wave of Islamic extremism began infiltrating many facets of society in the Arab-majority villages in Israel.
These groups quickly gained influence among marginalised Arab minorities in the country and enforced their hardline interpretation of Islam.
“I was in my teenage years at that time and my independent thoughts had been shaped and established by then.
“I had to wear [a hijab] for Year 11 and Year 12 at school and I hated it.
“To escape this environment, I accepted the first marriage proposal.”
Getting married seemed like the right decision especially as her suitor allowed her to complete her education. She was 18 at the time and yearned to attend university.
Little did she know when she accepted the proposal that her life would be turned upside-down.
“It started in the first week of marriage, and went on for 17 years.”
She eventually attended Haifa University and as soon as she completed her Bachelor's degree in mathematics and computer science, she gave birth to her first child.
“I hoped that with the baby the abuse would stop, as I was told – it did not.”
The marriage continued and she gave birth to two more children, while she was studying. She managed to attain a Master’s degree in mathematics.
“Education was something that gave me relief. I had a goal and a purpose which helped me to keep breathing,” she said
“I tried twice during this time to take my own life. I am not very proud of that.”
Despite her achievements, the abuse at home continued.
Divorce was unthinkable
During the late ‘90s and early 2000s, divorce was considered unthinkable in the community she lived in.
“Now it is different in the village but back then was nearly impossible, especially when you are known.”
She said her position as a mathematics teacher in the village made her “ashamed” to tell people about what she was enduring at home.
“[By not speaking up] this was one of the grave mistakes I made, I felt that this was my problem alone and I should solve it by myself.”
For a woman in her village, getting a divorce carried a stigma for her and her children and also meant that she ran the risk of losing her children.
“The other reality was that divorce meant at that time to leave the children behind which I could not even think of.
“Back then, abuse was accepted to a certain degree, it is better if the marriage is peaceful, but if the violence happened, it was not the end of the world.”
“The important thing was to maintain your dignity and family unity.
“[Domestic violence] might have been common, but no one knew about it. Many women don’t talk about violence in public.”
Her plan for escape from her situation was to find a way out that would not affect her children.
She began applying to universities as her marks were outstanding during her university studies.
“I believe that if you have your degrees, a strong personality, moral values and your economic independence, you can live anywhere.”
Coming to Australia
It was through her email correspondence that the University of New South Wales offered her a full three-year scholarship, where they paid for tuition for her and children and gave her a small amount of money for rent costs.
She accepted it and arrived in July 2005. Her husband travelled with her and she hoped that a new country would mean a new beginning for her marriage.
“I thought he might change in this new country, I wasn’t like I will go there to get a divorce, at the end he is the father of my children.”
Despite her hopes, the abuse continued, but it turned out to be the final straw.
“I was like enough is enough, if he travelled across the globe and still didn’t change, he will never change.”
She filed for a divorce but it wasn’t an easy journey.
“I struggled financially and also because everything was new; new culture, a new language, new schools for the kids, no friends and no family to support us. It was very tough,” she said
“I was on a student visa, and I needed his approval to get the residency for the kids. He refused to make it easy for us, so I had to go through a migration lawyer and the court to get it.
“His visa was cancelled and he left back to Israel.”
Now, alone in Sydney with three children, Dr Awawdeh faced more challenges.
“My scholarship was only for 3 years; usually a PhD takes 4 years. I had to finish in 3 years, so I finished one week before the third year ended.
“I was working two jobs, doing my PhD and raising three children all by myself.
“Although it was hard, I felt safe. I slept safely when I was in the village, I didn’t feel that safe. Here I was in a place where the law protects me.”
She landed a job at UNSW one week after receiving her PhD and started catching her breath.
“I missed teaching, so I started tutoring mathematics after work and on Saturdays and this was the seed of Global Education Academy.”
She eventually quit her “secure job” at the university to focus full time on the academy.
‘You can’t lose education’
Throughout her career in Australia, Dr Awawdeh has been recognised for her contribution to education and entrepreneurship, but she says the Ethnic business award has its own flavour.
“It acknowledges you as a successful migrant, even if you are not born here, if you work hard you can reach what you want.”
“I think that education is the most important asset. My university degrees were my ticket to freedom, without it I wouldn’t be able to leave the violent marriage or come to Australia.
“You can lose the house or the money or the car, but you can’t lose education especially for women.”
The academy runs an initiative where for every student that registers, a girl in Africa receives assistance in high school for two months.
“We help girls to finish their high school education in two countries, Uganda and Sierra Leone.”
The initiative is run in collaboration with the One Girl charity in Melbourne.
“We started this project two years ago but I wish we knew about this earlier,” she said.
“These girls won’t go to school because their parents can’t afford it, and therefore they become child brides, and many things can happen to them because they aren’t educated.
“I urge every woman to empower herself and her children, especially her daughters, with education. You never know what’s around the corner.”
Those impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse can get advice and be referred to a facility by calling 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. They can also call Link2Home on 1800 152 152. In an emergency, call 000.