The route to university isn’t easy

Posted on 27 August 2014

Wednesday August 27th

Yesterday I drove to Birzeit University near Ramallah.We decided to hire a car rather than use the service (‘servees’ which are mini vans that drive from one place to another when full) as it takes so long, with at least three changes between vans, and it gets costly. Also, depending on the situation at any of the checkpoints, fixed or ‘flying’, being in your own car can give some semblance of ‘choice’. (Of course, living under an illegal military occupation actually ensures that you have no choice.)

Any journey between the cities, towns and villages is fraught regardless of the way you travel. First, you must have all the correct documents. Of course, you can be refused passage with the right documents, but without them, you’ve no chance. Next is the uncertainty: you have no idea how long it may take, what might happen along the way, and even if you’ll get where you want to go.

So off we went, me driving, J and one of his nieces. The main purpose of going to Birzeit was to have a meeting with the administration to discuss Ahdaf and our work with students. The other was to meet up with some of our students who we’ve not met before. It started well. Out through Beit Sahour to Wadi Nar—the infamous Valley of Fire! It’s a very steep and winding road down one side and then an equally steep and winding hill back up the other side. It’s a massive drop, you can feel the pressure changing on your eardrums as you descend.

The next challenge was the Container. That’s a checkpoint that used to be temporary but has, over the past few years, been a permanent fixture of travel between the south of the West Bank to the North. Of course, if we were living in a ‘normal’ country we’d just drive north from Bethlehem, through Jerusalem into Ramallah and then Birzeit. But this is far from a normal country, and being Palestinian marks you out as a target.

I was surprised, Container was unmanned. So we drove through and then turned onto the highway towards the illegal Israeli colony of Beit El where there’s a checkpoint into the Ramallah area but much closer to Birzeit and avoiding the absolute horror that is Qalandia checkpoint. The highway we were on is one of those contradictions of the occupation. It is a key route out of Jerusalem to Ma’ale Adumim and more illegal colonies beyond. So there are lots of settlers on this road. But there are also lots of Palestinians (easily identifiable by their green car licence plates). Israeli cars have yellow plates, and of course, Palestinian Israelis will also be driving those cars.

All was going well and we were about five minutes from Beit El checkpoint when J mentioned that it is actually only supposed to be a checkpoint for diplomats and officials! We drew up in a short queue of three cars, including us. When it was our turn the soldier, barely into his twenties, took my passport and spent some time examining it. He spoke basic English, which actually was much better for us. He told me that this checkpoint is only open to diplomats and organisations, so I said that’s OK, we’re from an organisation in London working with students. I told him we were going to Birzeit and I had been given the directions to come to this checkpoint. He then asked for J’s ID. We gave him his British passport. He looked at it but I’m sure he couldn’t read English, certainly not well enough to recognise the Arabic name and Palestinian birth place. He relented, waved us though, but warned us not to use it again.

It was a quick drive from there and we even managed to arrive half an hour before our meeting! It went well and we got agreement from the University to help promote Ahdaf’s scholarship programme through various online resources they provide, for example, the student’s individual page on their intranet, as well as posters and listing us clearly on their website. As we are working in partnership with Friends of Birzeit University, so we are able to help more students, this will be a great help.

We then went on to meet some of the students we’re working with. It’s so nice to finally meet them in person. We rely so much on technology to build our relationships, hold meetings and discussions and make decisions, it’s important for us to have more personal contact as well. They’re all doing well and we discussed some of the community projects they’ve been doing, the challenges and successes, as well as answering any questions they had about what we’re doing.

I then asked them what, in brief, is the big issue for young people in Palestine; what is it that really needs to be addressed or confronted. It was interesting to hear their responses. One of the girls is from a small village, and her parents didn’t really want her to go to university. It took some persuasion, particularly as she wanted to study media. They finally agreed and she started last year. Another friend also started university at the same time, so these two young women were the first from their village to go. They said they faced a lot of negativity at first, people thought they should stay in the village, and that studying wasn’t necessary for them.

But they’ve worked hard, particularly in the village showing what they’re doing in a positive way, and people’s attitudes have really changed. This year 13 girls from their village enrolled in university. Their experiences and the way in which they advocated for higher education in their community have empowered other young women to be able to leave the traditional expectations of marriage and home-making for later. They really are pioneers for a new generation of educated and independent young women who are challenging the stereotypes society imposes.

One of the others had a similar story: her parents didn’t mind her going to university but she had to wear a scarf. She was faced with the unenviable dilemma of choosing between her family and her own choice. Not all young women feel obliged to wear the scarf: some of Jamal’s nieces don’t, including the niece who’d come with us. But for all these young women, and for young men too, by far the most significant challenge is traditional society, ‘conservative’ values and family pressure to conform to their parents’ expectations. The world is such an open place, social media and technology allow anyone with a device to see what’s happening around the world and to realise that others have freedoms denied them. Societies do not change quickly, and in Palestine, with the additional problems caused through the illegal occupation, change will be hard for some. But it will have to happen. The youth in Palestine are very determined to shape their own destiny.

It was time to leave so back through Ramallah but this time to Qalandia. We soon hit the queues. Creeping along at a snail’s pace, we were so glad to have the car: we had air-con! Last time we were on this road there’d been an accident and we were trapped for almost three hours in the baking sun. The only upside on that occasion was a busload of Israeli soldiers being transported from base were also trapped. There’s always a silver lining if you look hard enough.

PS: If there were no occupation and we could drive the most direct route, it should take around 30-40 minutes. To get to Birzeit took a little over an hour and a half. To get back, the journey took more than two hours. Imagine the challenges students and workers face every single day, just trying to move around their own land.

1 Response to The route to university isn’t easy

  • carol says:

    i remember the journey from birzeit to ramallah or jersualem well georgie and even those journeys were arduous and long, though we travelled by service.
    i have fond memories of birzeit university where i studied arabic for a few months – not long enough though. so pleased that students from birzeit will be part of your project to support young palestinians in continuing their education. this is such an important aspect of the resistance to the occupation.
    thinking of you all – carolxx

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