I am Constantly Amazed at the Student`s Patience and Inventiveness
I’ve been visiting An-Najah Nationa University in Nablus in the occupied West Bank for a fortnight. Coincidentally (since I have been working with refugees in Britain and France), the volunteers in the student youth exchange program where I was expected to contribute were expected to take part in discussions on ‘the refugee crisis’, although it was nothing to do with my supposed work at the university.
By: Luke Hodgkin
Who can ignore the situation of refugees in Palestine? I was told that good percentage of the students at An-Najah University, where I am myself a rather aged volunteer, were themselves refugees from 1948 or 1967 - and of course knew it. Nablus has four sizeable camps, and if your parents or grandparents came from Haifa or Akka you don’t ‘belong’ in the same way. And yet you live there (a student). You experience the mountains and sky of Nablus. you may never see the sea.
However for Palestinians the other ever present reality is the Israeli occupation. Syrian or Afghan refugees – (I’ve met them) – see their country’s present state as a nightmare; but they don’t doubt that their aim is to return. Palestinians know that – while they can enjoy things about their life and work – the problem is about much more than returning. Until freedom is won, they can never escape the brutal facts of occupation. It may manifest itself in direct settler violence (crop destructions, violence addressed against women and children) or in the army’s stranglehold on transport which slows the shortest journeys to three hours or more; and may hold everything up for hours. Life is near impossible for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; and heavily restricted for those who live as an oppressed minority in the state of Israel. (Another thing I learned is the extent to which the occupation creates a fragmented national identity – dividing access to privileges e.g. passports even within a single family. These diverse identities show up among the students I’ve been seeing daily. And paradoxically, the extent to which, conversely, the claim to a Palestinian national identity, even if one is a citizen of Jordan or Kuwait, or lives in a camp in Lebanon, is a means of resistance)
Palestinians know all this. How could they not? But (if they are students) they have to live, work, make the daily journey to class. They have to make plans; and they do. I’m constantly amazed at their patience and inventiveness. Every day I meet people and try to find out how they negotiate a way of living within these – you’d think impossible – constraints.
At an informal meeting, I was asked four questions (social/political) by the volunteers’ group. The most challenging, I thought, was: ‘What’s special about Palestine?’ Of course, many Palestinians think their history has been particularly unfortunate. cursed by villains from Balfour to Sharon to Netanyahu who deny their existence. But they also think their county is particularly beautiful, and so on. Nothing, I tried to answer, is special about Palestine that isn’t also special about the townships of South Africa, the favelas of Brazil, any place where dispossessed people are trying to work out their own future under unjust and repressive conditions. I have particular links to Palestine which make it special for me; and for the student of ‘the refugee problem’ it has a special interest. But, like all countries from which refugees come – in the end, it’s about people and how they live from day to day.
I’ve spent a wonderful two weeks among the students of An-Najah University; they gave me the task - testing the students’ ‘level’ in English before they go on a volunteering course. the students I was testing were often an eye-opening introduction to life here: intelligent, lively, well aware both of their own political grief and of those of the wider world but wanting also to focus on their personal interests, on Eminem or Indian films. Of course I steered conversations on to ‘the refugee problem’. Did they know about it? Whose fault was it and what should/could be done? Almost always. I learned a great deal from those conversations, as (in France) I’d already learned from talking to refugees; they ranged over all kinds of subjects. A really hard question I had from a student was: ‘What has been your most challenging experience?’ (one which changed you). That took some thought. My (perhaps too obvious) answer was: discovering the refugee situation in Calais last September; and that I could do something about it; and the friendships that I formed. So my time here has been a extraordinary education, as my time in the Calais ‘jungle’ has been.
So can we help the people of Palestine? Surely, but not, as usual, if we arrive with any preconceptions about what that help will be. I always advise my friends to visit, to learn, to see the country and meet the people. That’s where it starts. It was moving, for me, to visit a factory which produced beautiful shoes but had been closed by a combination of Israeli regulation and Chinese competition. I tried to buy a pair, but of course I was given them.
Best, if possible (and I know it won’t be possible for everyone) we can go and see, and experience life as it’s lived, from bread and humus to teenage soldiers and checkpoints; to see the land and meet the people. (Of course some of them are in the UK, e.g. at SOAS.)