Rawan Yaghi heads to Oxford

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  Rawan Yaghi Gaza, Palestine (Photo: Jon Donnison/BBC)

Exciting news here at Mondoweiss. The BBC reports 19 year old Gazan writer and Mondoweiss contributor Rawan Yaghi, known by her many Twitter followers as @MyFreePal, is headed off to Oxford University this fall. Rawan is the recipient of the Jesus College Junior Members’ Scholarship, a pioneering student-funded initiative which finances a full undergraduate degree at Oxford University for a student from Gaza.

There’s no one more deserving of this honor than Rawan. She’s a powerhouse. I’ll describe how we met Rawan shortly but first:

BBC: Gazan heads to Oxford University on unusual scholarship

Rawan Yaghi is a bookish 19 year old who, appropriately for a student of literature, arrives to meet me in Gaza with a text tucked under her arm.

It is a well-thumbed copy of Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s classic satirical novel on the absurdities of war; not an inappropriate choice for somebody who’s spent her entire life amid one of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts.

But Rawan’s life is about to take a different direction. Currently a student at Gaza’s Islamic University, she has just won a scholarship to Oxford University to study linguistics and Italian.

She is looking forward to moving from the minarets of Gaza to the city of “dreaming spires”.

“I’m very excited. I can’t wait,” she smiles. “It’s going to be different but it’s going to be fun.”

10118 Jesus1
 University of Oxford  Jesus College

We first became acquainted with Rawan’s unadulterated talent when two of her essays, A Little Girl and From Beneath, were part of the Mondoweiss series Gaza Two Years Later. The series featured a number of young Gazan bloggers and writers reflecting on the two-year anniversary of the Israeli attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008/09. The essays were extraordinary and we decided to merge them into the Mondo Awards, a writing competition with entrants from around the world that by coincidence, we were featuring at the same time. Rawan, at 17, was awarded top score along with Rebecca Vilkomerson in a tight competition.

Since then we’ve published numerous articles by Rawan Yaghi chronicling life and death in Gaza, but that doesn’t explain how over the years, Rawan has grown on us. When Phil first saw and interacted with her on Skype he was so taken aback by her “delicacy”, intellect and “poise” he wrote, “I found myself overcome.”

Full disclosure, in the course of corresponding with Rawan over the years I’ve come to know her, care about her and respect, not just her work but her person. Such  strength, compassion, integrity, and dedication in a person so young, coupled with so much talent is a blessing to behold. I had the pleasure of hosting Rawan at my home for 10 days during Ramadan last summer and by the end of her visit my mother, friends and roommates had all fallen in love with her. It surprises none of us that Rawan has received this scholarship. She ravished a whole community on her visit here. We didn’t want her to leave and we told her that. But not returning home wasn’t an option Rawan even considered.  She missed her family and Gaza. Besides, she had hundreds and hundreds of hours of studying ahead of her, for her entrance exams and the opportunity of winning this scholarship.

It was just very hard to say goodbye. So tiny, lugging through the airport overstuffed suitcases twice her weight in used books (from Moe’s basement on Telegraph avenue). We all miss her here in California.

Now that my disclosure is out of the way, let’s get back to this scholarship, because there is another amazing individual whose initiative helped make this remarkable opportunity possible for Rawan, as well as future students from Gaza in the coming years.

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Emily Dreyfus, Ramallah, Palestine Dec 2012
(Photo: Mohammed Farraj)

In 2009 after the attack on Gaza, Emily Dreyfus, a musician managing the Oxford Baroque Players while studying Classics and Modern Languages at Jesus college, founded The Jesus College Junior Members’ Scholarship. Supported financially by undergraduate and postgraduate students at the College the scholarship offers a full undergraduate degree at Oxford University for a student from Gaza. It is also supported by the Governing Body of Jesus College, the Hoping Foundation, the A.M. Qattan Foundation, and the Hani Qaddumi Scholarship Foundation.

During the radio broadcast BBC interview, Emily Dreyfus said the students “voted for this from the outset.” There was a show of support from students to reach out and donate money out of their own pockets for this cause and that it was “a very small contribution to make which has a disproportionately positive benefit.” So I contacted Emily curious about her experience launching this initiative. Here is her response:

The support from the student body and the senior members of Jesus College (the tutors) for this initiative was fantastically encouraging, and we owe the success of the initiative to their belief in this scheme and their generosity.

I consider Rawan’s bravery, intelligence, and compassion truly remarkable. Moreover, I feel confident that many other young Gazans would flourish in exactly the same way were they granted the access to freedom of movement and therefore education abroad which for many international students is self-evident.

The Jesus College scholarship has shown that UK students present and past want to come together to make this possible. One student who actively helped establish the scholarship described it as ‘the best project he had ever been involved with’, saying ‘it turns out that doing good is really satisfying’.

At 40:38 in the BBC radio broadcast Jon Donnison interviews Rawan:

Most people think it’s like a war zone, or everyone here is really depressed or everyone here is involved in politics or involved in the whole conflict, but it’s a more easy way of living than that, it’s not always about war. It’s also about families, friends and love.

The following is the first article Mondoweiss ever published of Rawan Yaghi’s.

A little girl

Sleep in here sleep little girl
I would keep you so warm
Sleep… darling I’ll hold you so firm
You’re here in my lap no need for fright
Keep on your happy sight
Sun will shine
Birds will wake the sleepy night
You’re my….

My Mom suddenly stopped singing and stopped calmly feeling my hair. Her hand also stopped shaking. She was keeping me on her lap, trying to keep me warm in that cold night. It was too dark that I could barely see her face. She was very warm, but she gradually lost that comforting heat. I tried to keep it, so I covered her with the small blanket she was covering me with and I stayed in her lap. Some minutes passed; however, she didn’t continue singing, and her body kept going colder. There was so much going on outside. I could hear a man weakly weeping. I thought she was listening to the sounds outside trying to know what was happening.

I sat beside her, for, then, she was so cold that I couldn’t stay in her lap. “Mama, why is the man outside crying?”. She didn’t answer. She kept listening. I said no word afterwards. I may have slept for a short while after the noise was a little bit lower. When I woke up I saw my mother with her eyes closed covered with my blanket. I thought she must have been awake the whole time I was sleeping, that’s why I didn’t try to wake her up; she would get in a really bad mood if I do. I poured her some water and put it in front of her. She was still cold. I was cold too but I thought she was so much colder. I sat right in the opposite of her and kept waiting for her to wake up and drink my glass of water and then thank me for it. Thinking of my dad and two brothers who got out of the house carrying a white shirt and how much noise happened after they got out, while my mother followed them so fast and came back so slow, with that noise frequently coming back, I kept staring at her cold body.

Now, two years later I understand it all, the cold, the whimper, my dad’s white shirt, my brothers, everything, even the mess outside. I understand why the men who came that morning took only me and why they wouldn’t listen to me yelling at them saying that my mother is still there feeling very cold.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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31 Responses

  1. just
    April 5, 2013, 8:39 am

    I don’t think I can stop crying……….. Rawan’s poem/prose is devastatingly beautiful and heartbreaking. (Uniquely and hauntingly lovely and somehow reminiscent of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou)

    Blessings to Rawan and her deserved scholarship.
    Thanks to The Jesus College Junior Members’ Scholarship, and to you, Annie, and to Mondoweiss.

  2. Cliff
    April 5, 2013, 8:49 am

    This is wonderful news! I’m so happy for Ms. Yaghi, congratulations!

  3. Citizen
    April 5, 2013, 9:54 am

    I was ignorant of the Jesus College, and so here’s more about its scholarship, including a link to donate to it: http://www.jesus.ox.ac.uk/alumni/the-junior-members-scholarship

    That’s the first time in many moons in my experience that something labeled the Jesus anything turns out to be something I can admire. It’s apparently not a narrow Baptist or Evangelical agency like so many we have here in the USA.

    • lysias
      April 5, 2013, 12:46 pm

      At Oxford, Jesus is known as “the Welsh college”. Elizabeth I established the college, at the behest of Welshman Hugh Price, so that he [Price] “might bestow his estate of the maintenance of certain scholars of Wales to be trained up in good letters”. It has the sole Professor of Celtic at Oxford, supernumerary Welsh fellows, and special scholarships for Welsh students.

  4. lysias
    April 5, 2013, 10:46 am

    I got a second undergraduate degree in Classics (Greek and Latin) at Oxford some 40 years ago. It was perhaps the best educational experience of my life.

  5. bintbiba
    April 5, 2013, 10:50 am

    3aafaaki ya Rawan! We are so proud of you. Enjoy your new life in Oxford.
    All my best wishes .

  6. yrn
    April 5, 2013, 1:04 pm

    Rawan Yaghi all the best in studies

  7. Mike_Konrad
    April 5, 2013, 1:17 pm

    Wish her lots of peace and success.

    I hope she Westernizes a bit and loses the hijab, but other than that, all the best.

    • Bumblebye
      April 5, 2013, 1:40 pm

      The demographics are different from Scotland or Wales, but here in England a hijab is not out of place. My hope is that no impediments to her travel to and from the UK are put in place by Israel.

      • just
        April 5, 2013, 2:09 pm

        I hope the same, Bumblebye.

        All the best, Rawan!

    • Cliff
      April 5, 2013, 1:57 pm

      Loses the hijab?


      You going around telling Jews to ‘lose the kippah’?

      • Mike_Konrad
        April 5, 2013, 2:31 pm

        Loses the hijab?


        You going around telling Jews to ‘lose the kippah’?

        The Kippot covers less than the hijab. It is not required among Jews the way the hijab is in Iran or the burqa in Saudi Arabia. A lot of this modesty is oppression.

        And I do ask Jews where in the Torah does it require the Kippot?

        Ans: It doesn’t.

        And yes, Haredim in Jerusalem with their sex-segregated buses are just as oppressive.

      • Ecru
        April 5, 2013, 3:19 pm

        @ Mike_Konrad

        So the deciding factor is how much of the head is covered? Come off it, are you going to start telling nuns off next? Or how about Catholic women on their way to church, I still remember them from when I was a kid, all waiting outside the church with their head-scarves on.

        And this comparison of yours, comparing what’s required amongst Jews (a religion/ethnic identifier) and what’s law in Saudi Arabia/Iran (nation states – and pretty repressive ones at that). Not exactly an honest comparison now is it? Why didn’t you mention Turkey, that IS a Muslim nation too you know. I mean do you have problems with Jewish women wearing wigs or sikh men wearing turbans?

        And btw – I happen to know a few Muslim women here in Europe, some of whom wear the hijab, others not. But the hijab is NOT for them a mark of not being “westernised,” it’s a mark of religious sensibilities. Now the burqa, that’s another subject because it covers the face (European culture requires “in person” interactions to be “open faced” – to simplify it down way too much) but the hijab? It’s a headscarf for pity’s sake.

      • Cliff
        April 5, 2013, 4:24 pm

        The hijab is not oppression.

        You are simply being presumptuous. You are projecting.

        By definition it is not oppression.

        Femininity is not absolute and Western in character.

    • justicewillprevail
      April 5, 2013, 5:41 pm

      You just can’t resist tossing in a patronising, ignorant barb can you? Which just undermines your facade of well-wishing.

    • bintbiba
      April 6, 2013, 11:40 am

      The hijab doesn’t preclude being Westernized or any other ‘…ized’ ! I am not Muslim, but will defend Rawan’s right to wear , not wear, shave her head, whatever…….. , as long as she does of her own free will. I know many women who wear hijab and are more cultured, cultivated, educated, capable, independent -minded, interesting, than many, many bare-headed women anywhere. Your comment is so patronising.

    • Ellen
      April 7, 2013, 7:15 am

      Rawan, most importantly are big congratulations and well wishes to you and to all of your family.

      Please ignore and forgive the sad and mean spirited projection cast upon you by Mike_Konrad.

      When people such as yourself make such well deserved accomplishments, the Konrads of the world among us have a way of suddenly appearing.

      It means you are good and well and on the right path! Blessings to you.

    • piotr
      April 10, 2013, 5:36 pm

      What does it mean to “Westernize”? It is important to have friendship or at least civil acquaintance with various people, and to learn about them without the lens of superiority. University is a good place and time to do it.

      Recently I got acquainted with some Saudi students. Each of them is different. In our building you can watch students working on the homeworks like fish in a fish tank. The girl among them covers her head in a style that I did not see, so it is not easy to see her face, and she seems shy. (American girls in the school of engineering can be shy too, our culture does not veil women but deprecates assertive behavior.) I guess that a young woman coming from the Kingdom should be expected to be more reticent than a young woman from Iran — this semester it so happens that the latter is grader/assistant for the former.

      • gamal
        April 10, 2013, 7:37 pm

        “What does it mean to “Westernize”?” i believe in an extraordinary series of typo’s our correspondent was attempting to type “Civilize”

        same meaning, in context, much greater clarity, and given the personal history of the object of his wishes an astonishing lapse in this sites moderation policy, Jews whose artificial “sensitivity” is tiptoed around, ( are the KKK or American state carrying off your children, murdering your families and expropriating your property is anyone suggesting that should?) are happy to permit this kind of racist abuse directed at an individual. Its not as if Zionists and anti-Arab racists dont have enough threads upon which to spin their fabulations, while grown mature Jewish men scream on those other threads about general remarks relating to history, i think you should be ashamed of your selves. What do his idiotic remarks add to this thread?

        Anyone likely to apologize to Ms Yaghi for this extraordinary lapse?

        Perhaps you are too busy watching in disbelief as on those other threads MJR metamorphosizes into Dershowitz and Yonah F wonders when that child race will be ready for “democracy”. Expecting respect for your own sensitivities (about history, no one suggesting that Jews should be stripped of their rights today here and now or forced out of their 18th century religious garb if they wish to “westernized”) without being able to reciprocate is sign of what do you think?

  8. just
    April 5, 2013, 5:35 pm

    Goodness gracious– it is a scarf and she chooses to wear it.

    May the good Lord rescue women from dumb men.

  9. Pamela Olson
    April 6, 2013, 1:55 pm

    Hooray for Rawan! Oxford is lucky to have such a dynamo… Wow, so much respect, I’m excited to follow this young woman’s life and path in the future, it makes me feel good about humanity. :)

  10. MK_Ultra
    April 6, 2013, 5:10 pm

    All the best to Rawan in her endeavors. May she grow and gain much wisdom and strength to help her people and their cause.

  11. Inanna
    April 7, 2013, 4:42 am

    Mabruk Rawan. Leave safely and return safely and enjoy yourself.

  12. gamal
    April 7, 2013, 11:25 am

    Oxford is very fortunate, to paraphrase a Zen master “the giver should be thankful.”

    For you and the inimitable Annie, a word of love unity and wisdom from the ranks.

    Trafford Road Ballad

    • Annie Robbins
      April 10, 2013, 3:56 pm

      thank you so much gamal. beautiful wise song. i am listening to Ewan Macoll (again) right now.

      • gamal
        April 10, 2013, 4:15 pm

        cool i saw your Aida reference cant sleep refuse to weep,

        I dont think my link to the Song Skibbereen got through, i am very fortunate that anything i post gets through so here it is again


        note the reference to revenge and also the fine sensibility of those who really suffer, i defy you not weep, and accept the timeless superiority of Cork over Dublin, Skibb would gladly welcome you, they are very fine folk.

  13. Annie Robbins
    April 10, 2013, 4:07 pm

    well, now that the dust has settled on this news a little bit, and i can stand away from it just a little bit, i have a few more things to say.

    this was one of the most difficult articles i ever wrote for mondoweiss (really). no doubt because i was afraid i would spill my guts out all over the page and inadequately…just not be able to do rawan’s accomplishment justice.

    rawan, i love you so much and miss you so much and am so happy and so proud of you.

    and emily, it makes my heart burst thinking what you and your fellow students and tutors have accomplished. i hope every school on the globe follows your lead and makes a free scholarship for palestinian students. thank you.

    • Sumud
      April 11, 2013, 11:48 am

      It’s a lovely piece Annie – you write with your heart on your sleeve and that’s just how I like it :-)

      [Belated] congratulations to Rawan! I hope she has a marvellous time at Oxford, just thinking about my uni days, it’s a wonderful part of your life. To be studying in another country altogether, wow, it’s going to be difficult at times with a lot of great experiences along the way. I don’t doubt that meeting Rawan in person is going to expand some people’s world, with regards to what they know about Palestine and Israel. This is good!

  14. amigo
    April 11, 2013, 5:59 am

    Thatcher attended Oxford.

    Not a very positive recommendation.

    Still, enjoy your time there.

    • Annie Robbins
      April 11, 2013, 2:48 pm

      lol amigo, i do believe oxford is generally considered to be the best, the most famous and the most prestigious university in the world. (officially i think it is always in the top 3). i don’t think thatcher can drag its reputation down too much.

      a degree from oxford is priceless. the opportunity of this experience for Rawan is immeasurable.

      • lysias
        April 11, 2013, 5:49 pm

        I have four university degrees: from Princeton (first B.A.), Oxford (second B.A.), Harvard (Ph.D.), and Yale (J.D.). Oxford was certainly the best educational experience of the four.

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