'We've no jobs. Education is our only hope'

January 23, 2003

Palestinian students are struggling to complete studies as financial support falters. Alex Klaushofer reports.

As Israelis prepare to go to the polls, The THES looks at the impact of conflict on Middle Eastern students attending universities in the UK.

When Raed Almobayed started his medical studies at Southampton University five years ago, he little imagined that after years of hard work his degree would be in jeopardy because he would run short of money. But as a Palestinian studying in the UK, he has been hit by the economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza, which has left about two-thirds of Palestinians unemployed.

In 1998, Almobayed's father, whose property development business in Gaza City was thriving, was confident he would be able to provide financial support for his son's studies. But after the intifada began in September 2000 and Israel responded with curfews and closures in the Palestinian territories, he was no longer able to send his son the money he had planned.

Unable to pay the mounting bills for his university fees, Almobayed was suspended twice in little over a year. He responded in an entrepreneurial way and set about fundraising. "There isn't one charity or organisation in the country I didn't apply to," he says. With the help of donations from charities and sympathetic individuals, he managed to get himself reinstated. But with annual fees for overseas students of £9,000 for the first three years and £18,000 for the final two, medical degrees are notoriously expensive. Although Almobayed is now in what should be the fifth and final year of his degree, his future remains uncertain, as he needs £36,000 in fees to graduate.

Although the university has arranged various payment plans, Almobayed feels his case has been handled badly. His offer of a deferred payment of £25,000 once he starts the lucrative house-doctor post he has secured following graduation was declined. "The least they could have done is give me a loan or wait till I graduate," he says. But a spokeswoman for Southampton said: "We have done everything we can to ensure he can complete his studies."

Despite the difficulties, Almobayed, who wants to be a neurosurgeon, has not considered giving up his studies. "It's been absolute hell to go through," he says. "It's everything I worked for. If, at the end of it (the university says) 'You won't get your degree', it's an absolute tragedy. My life would reach a dead end."

Almobayed's situation is not unusual. According to Eyad Waleed, chair of the General Union of Palestinian Students and a PhD student at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, almost all the Palestinians at Britain's universities - he estimates there are at least 1,000 - are struggling because of the economic crisis at home. Adding to the pressure is the fact that fierce competition for the few jobs in the Palestinian territories means that there is a high premium on education, with postgraduate qualifications considered essential in many areas. As a result, Palestinians who have managed to reach the UK are determined to finish their studies. Waleed says: "As Palestinians, we have no government and no jobs. Education is the only hope because, if you go back, there are few jobs. That is why we are determined: it is a matter of life or death."

What does vary is individuals' luck and ability to cope. Brother and sister Salih and Suad Al-Borno are in the final year of undergraduate degrees at Umist, studying software and communications engineering respectively. Both have experienced stress due to uncertainty about their future. They have struggled since funding from their father in Gaza dried up last year, and face the new year without money for rent or food. They also do not know whether the university will allow them to sit their next set of exams. Suad says the anxiety has affected her ability to concentrate and has had an impact on her grades. "Sometimes I cry because I don't know what I will do," she says.

Salih has already taken a year out to work as a security guard and, with their student visas due to expire in August, the pressure is on for the pair to complete their studies. "We must graduate. We can't keep on like this," Suad says.

They have had little success in raising money. One charity promised them £300, only to make it clear that the donation would be sent directly to the university, to be swallowed up by their fees' debt. Salih is gloomy about the future. "It's very dark. I don't have a clear plan about what I'm going to do," he says.

As a short-term strategy, many Palestinian students work part time to support themselves, and hope that help in some form arrives before time runs out to pay the fees.

Basel Almisshal, who is writing a PhD on nation-building at York University, works as a hotel night porter and acts as university welfare officer in exchange for accommodation. But a delay in getting his student visa meant that last year he was not allowed to seek part-time work or travel to do the fieldwork for his thesis. Despite phone calls and letters from him and the university, he says it took the Home Office nearly a year, instead of the maximum two months, to grant his visa. "It was a very bad experience," he says. "It interrupted my studies and caused me to suffer financially and psychologically." The Home Office, while unable to comment on individual cases, says that 79 per cent of applications are settled within ten days.

But as the economic consequences of the Middle East crisis bite harder, more Palestinian students are likely to suffer from visa-related problems in the future. Paul Ward, a solicitor specialising in immigration law in Brighton, says that in the past few months he has seen a series of cases in which Palestinian students have had problems with the immigration authorities because of their financial situation. "It's effectively impossible for Palestinian students to stay in the UK unless they can show they have overseas resources," he says.

With education all but at a standstill in the Palestinian territories, Britain's role is all the more important, according to Anoush Ehteshami, professor of international relations at the University of Durham. A shortage of people trained in key areas spells disaster for the future of the area, he argues. "Ultimately, you end up with a totally dysfunctional society. It is morally wrong for the Palestinians, but it is also dangerous for Israel, because that level of deprivation can only feed the political violence."

To contact the General Union of Palestinian Students, telephone Eyad Waleed on 07950 286665 or email: eyad9@hotmail.com

'I will be arrested, 100 per cent'

Husain Abuoun, a 25-year-old from Ramallah, started an MSc in product engineering at the University of Northumbria last September, following an access course at Liverpool University.
He has received a final reminder to pay a £2,500 instalment on his fees by the end of January or risk suspension from the university.

With his mother a schoolteacher and his father a university lecturer, both his parents' incomes have suffered as the Palestinian Ministry of Education has been paying reduced and delayed salaries since Israeli forces largely destroyed the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah last April.

"The situation is very bad and I can't ask them to help me with anything," Abuoun says.

He estimates that since October he has sent about 40 applications to potential grant-giving organisations. "All of them say the same thing: 'No, we can't help you,'" he says. If a plan put forward by his course leader to get him research work and negotiate with the university on fee payment fails, his only option will be to curtail his studies.

Abuoun shares with other Palestinians students - some too frightened to speak to The THES - the conviction that when he tries to go home he will face problems with the Israeli authorities at the border. "I will be arrested, 100 per cent. All the people will be arrested when they go back," he says.

His certainty derives from an alleged threat made by the Israeli army when his family's house was raided during the occupation of Ramallah in April.

"They said to my mother: 'Don't think he can come back. We will arrest him at the border,'" he says.

Omar Zourob has completed an MPhil in dentistry at the University of Manchester, but he was suspended for non-payment of fees in December and his results were withheld.

When Zourob's studies began in September 2000, his father, who ran an import-export business from Rafah, a Palestinian town in the south of the Gaza strip bordering Egypt, supported him for seven months. But restrictions on the movement of goods and people by the Israeli army meant that the business collapsed. "They stopped everything. No one can import anything. Now he's just sitting at home," Zourob says.

Although for the past six months Zourob has been supporting his wife and two baby daughters by working as a security guard, his wages are too low to allow him to pay his outstanding fees of £6,000. Neither of his initial plans - to do a PhD in Britain or to return to his dental clinic in Rafah - now seems viable. "The future is not clear to me," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

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