The journey from Gaza to Oxbridge

Universities must take a better approach in supporting students from conflict areas, writes Mona Jebril 

March 13 2018
Oxford college

Going to the University of Oxford to pursue an MSc in higher education was the first time I had travelled outside Gaza for 14 years and the first time I had done it alone.

When I received the Said Foundation Scholarship to the University of Oxford, I was working as a teacher in state schools in a disadvantaged area in Gaza and started to feel bored with my work and life. Many of my female colleagues who also received scholarships turned the offers down because they thought it was unacceptable from a religious and cultural perspective to travel on their own to a foreign country, even if it was for education. So in 2005, I was one of a few single women in Gaza to travel alone to the UK for a master's degree.

The Gaza-Egypt border had been closed for a prolonged period at the time I was due to leave. Despite obtaining the admission, the scholarship and the visa, I was worried that I may not actually be able to join my course on time. Even though it had been announced that the border would be open for three days, this did not happen and so I had to sleep for two of these days on the border with my family and many other travellers.

On the third day, I was escorted to the Palestinian checkpoint where there were only 11 buses available to take us from Gaza to Egypt, but there were hundreds of people who wanted to get on these buses. Every time I tried to put my luggage in a bus, it would fill up in seconds. Finally, there were only two buses remaining and I had to do something otherwise I would lose my Oxford opportunity.

I went to a police officer who was standing nearby and he helped me by throwing my luggage on top of a bus as it was moving. The bus driver shut the door, leaving me outside the bus. I started knocking heavily on the door until it opened. I cried a lot, and cried more bitterly when I remembered that this was happening to me on my way to Oxford.

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During the first month in Oxford, everything still felt strange: the buildings, the traffic, the shops, and the people. People were really nice and friendly, but also very curious. I seemed to be the first Gazan they have ever seen. Some asked questions that showed that they had little understanding of the situation in Gaza and several assumed I should just be grateful to be at Oxford. This was compounded by a sense that the university seemed to lump all international students together, not recognising the different backgrounds we were coming from.

In the beginning, I needed people’s help in quite basic things such as how to use a map, how to use the stop button on the bus, and how to read a book for the purpose of essay writing. I was asking lots of questions every day, trying to learn as much as I could. I was also cautious in conversations because I was not familiar with the international context and its cultural sensitivities.

There was a wide gap between the educational system in Gaza and the system in Britain and the University of Oxford. I was aware of this gap and worked hard to overcome it. For example, in my first term in Oxford, I wrote an essay that I thought was impressive. My tutor, however, said: “This is not an essay, these are notes for an essay.”

In the following term, I wrote another essay and the comment this time was: “If this work was marked, I would have given it a distinction.” While many of my friends were enjoying spending their free time cooking and socialising in the bar, I was studying for hours in the library. The hard work paid off and I ended up graduating from my course with distinction.

After graduation, I returned to the Gaza Strip but, as a Palestinian, my journey back was not straightforward. The Gaza border had been closed for almost three weeks, so we kept packing, travelling across the Sinai desert, waiting at the border for several hours in the noonday heat, and then returning to a village in Egypt to wait for the next opening date for the border. When the border opened, I entered Gaza after 12 hours of humiliation at the checkpoint.

When I came back, my Oxford degree helped me gain a lectureship at two of Gaza’s universities. While I enjoyed this, after five years in Gaza, I found myself travelling back to the UK to undertake my PhD at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar in 2012. This time I thought things would be easier because I was already familiar with the experience of studying at elite universities.

However, I did not realise how much the siege and violence in Gaza had had a detrimental impact on me. My journey to study in Cambridge was much more intense than going to Oxford, probably because of the deteriorating political context in Gaza: two wars occurred in Gaza in 2012 and 2014.

The longer period required to study for a PhD, and my inability to visit home at any time during my studies for five years also affected how I felt about the experience. I found it hard to focus on my studies and I felt torn between a desire to be with my family and to continue my education. Despite the challenges, I recently completed my PhD with no corrections.

When I look back, I feel two things: gratitude and anger: I do feel grateful that I had the opportunity to study at Oxbridge and on two prestigious scholarships. Simultaneously, I am angry that my journey to postgraduate studies in the UK was so hard.

Universities did not seem to be aware of the difficulties that students who come from conflict areas such as Gaza, encounter in their higher education experience. I felt a lot of pressure to try to keep up with the other students. It is a right for students from conflict areas to have their circumstances acknowledged by their universities. This would make their missions in travelling to international universities much more possible.

Read more: How to choose a UK university

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