Student, Jas Irban, shares and reflects on her time at An-Najah University in the Occupied Palestinian Territory:
Horns beep, dog barks, fireworks crack. Night has fallen. City lights glimmer up the hill of cluttered housing constructions. In the road a father walks hand in hand with his two sons, one on either side, their shadows lead. In the distance there is the call to prayer, a sound to soothe. Stuck to the walls are poems about dreams of freedom, a sign that says ‘Welcome to the house of respect, peace, honesty and happiness’ and the colours of the flag of Palestine. I breathe a sigh of relief having made it through the invasive security measures at Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv where in order to visit Palestine you must lie your way through border control and say you are only staying in Israel. One volunteer was interrogated for 8 hours, only to be intimidated, deported and denied entrance, all because she has a stamp from Lebanon in her passport and is Muslim.
Upon first impressions, walking into An-Najah University, Nablus, it appears just as any other university across the world. There is the hustle and bustle of students with files in hand moving from one class to the next, benches taken over by bodies of young people gossiping and a strong sense of community. But beneath the surface this is no ordinary university and no ordinary student lifestyle. The students at An-Najah University are both exceptional and unique. Some must wake up in the night to begin the journey to University, not long in distance but in the time they must wait to get through Israeli checkpoints.
Checkpoints themselves are a humiliating experience but one well-known to those who have grown up in Palestine. They live in what Professor Jawed Fatayer describes as ‘The largest prison on Earth’. The only way to pass through occupied Palestine or to leave, is past a soldier with a gun that may or may not be directed at your head, depending on who you get sizing you up. Others come from refugee camps, where there are constant disturbances from both the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) and building pressures within a community that does not have access to adequate health care or housing. Night time can be host to unexpected visits from the IDF into family homes, involving intimidation and arrest, often without due process. Some students have family members or friends who are held in prison for any length of time and are never given a reason for incarceration. Despite the daily restrictions of movement that Palestinians face and the circumstances under which they live, 95% of students arrive at University in the morning on time. These students value their education highly and are eager to learn. Ramsis from Balata Refugee camp showed us the bullet holes in the walls of his family home, ‘They come here to harass and intimidate us.’ He knows 5 languages and threw himself into education from a young age because he says ‘What else can you do here?’
I was involved in teaching English conversation workshops, for 2 weeks, on a project with An-Najah run by Zajel Youth Exchange Programme called “Journey Towards Hope”. I gained knowledge that will be carried with me for life after spending time with the students. They have a lot of inspirational lessons to teach the rest of the world and all of the International volunteers returned to their home countries with a new perspective. The students at An-Najah manage to stay motivated against all odds and will not let anything get in the way of their studies.
Before visiting Palestine, I had my own prejudices despite doing copious amounts of research on the occupation and the history of the conflict. But no amount of reading or documentary watching could prepare me for either the heartbreaking or the heart warming reality of life in Palestine. I was under the impression that the English classes were to help people get a real handle of the language in order for them to get out of Palestine and into the international job market, migrating to other countries for better conditions of living. However, I realised that it is not so easy to leave, both because of the permission that must be granted by the Israeli government and the conflicting sense of loyalty to ones country combined with the need to feel free. Many people do not want to abandon their country and its struggle; they have the burning need to fight for the freedom of Palestine, wanting only to leave for periods of time but always with the intention of return. And by fight I do not mean violently, contrary to stereotypes prevalent in many forms of mainstream media; Palestinian academics, students and workers alike participate in all forms of peaceful resistance and protest. Education is in itself an incredibly strong form of resistance. As one student told me, ‘We need to fight, not with killing, there are many ways to fight, we have intelligent people here, we can fight with the media for example.’
However, for some, the future looks bleak. Despite the need of many to stay in Palestine, after the initial hope offered with studying at university, unfortunately graduates often find themselves with no work and no source of income. One student said, ‘My brother got good grades at his degree, now there is no jobs with good salary, he wants to leave Palestine.’ Another reflected, ‘We have dreams. We have ambitions. But we do not have the ability to achieve these dreams. There is nothing for us here.’ However after a group discussion about never giving up, his faith was restored by the optimism offered from other members of the class. Mariam had the whole room in silent contemplation followed by applause when she said, ‘We have alota difficulties, alota obstacles that stand in our way but I don’t think we should give up our dreams. If I wanna be an engineer I´ll be an engineer, if I wanna be a doctor I´ll be a doctor, I ain´t gonna let anything get in the way of my dreams.’
An-Najah University is home to some of the world’s most inspirational learners, who are themselves, great teachers. It is an extraordinary place of study and offers hope in the shadow of life under occupation. This university produces graduates who not only complete their years of study with a degree in hand but with dignity and resilience despite the violations of human rights that are faced throughout their lives. Professor Fatayer aptly puts it, ‘I think these people are heroes because they really have adaptation management skills.’
Zajel is offering both a spring and summer camp for 2014. For more information visit http://youth.zajel.org/summer_camps/discoverpalestine.html and http://youth.zajel.org/summer_camps/tomorrowisbetter.html