Malaka Mohammed is a graduate in English Literature and Education from the Islamic University of Gaza and is now studying for a Master’s degree in Global Politics and International Law at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She will documenting her experience in Sheffield in monthly posts for Mondoweiss.
Yaffa to Gaza then Sheffield
I am of the generation of children born during the first Intifada, in the city of Yaffa, now a part of present day Israel. I have a sharp recollection of the stories my Grandmother used to tell me about our homeland: the scent of the orange trees blowing in the wind. There was nothing quite as provoking as the image of the trees standing tall, free. Growing up as a refugee in Gaza, I burnt these images into my mind, always telling my Grandmother that I wanted to see the land. She, like the resilience of the trees, reminded me to be strong, tenacious, and never submit to powerlessness, especially in the face of injustice.
My grandma died. God bless her soul. Yet she is still alive within us, within her children and grandchildren.
Throughout my childhood I have witnessed destruction, ruins, and the desecration of human rights. I watched my family and friends suffer from phosphorous bombs that were thrown on our region. What I experienced is indescribable. Sometimes I have sleepless nights.
I grew up in Al-Shijaeyah, Eastern Gaza; the closest area to the Israeli borders. Like the rest of Gaza we suffer from daily power-cuts and shortages of clean water. Also, given its proximity to the Israeli border, it is likely to be Israel’s first target during any invasion or escalation. My upbringing in Gaza, whilst wholesome and spiritual, two qualities I consider irreplaceable and perhaps specific to Palestine, was in sharp contrast to my experience so far of living in the UK, all of which will be elaborated upon in the following paragraphs.
The First Glance
When I first saw Sheffield, I was at the peak of happiness given the numerous narrow escapes I had crossing the Rafah border into Egypt. Travelling alone for the first time was quite difficult; I felt traumatized after my humiliated journey. I lost the ability to communicate properly and my sleep was infested with recurring dreams of the malicious policemen and soldiers in the Sinai dessert and Cairo who seemed hell bent on stopping every car bearing a Palestinian passenger. The experience in totality was de-humanizing. Of course, with time, these feelings subsided after meeting more people from Sheffield who each day have helped me create better memories.
The differences between Sheffield and Gaza were immediately apparent. The degree of peace and calm is so alien to me it was initially unnerving. Everyday in Gaza is unpredictable in comparison; before I could not imagine spending a day without hearing the sound of F16 or Apache jets hovering in the skies, infiltrating our daily life. It seems miraculous to behold a city where the electricity supply is continuous and clean water is freely available. I can travel freely where and whenever I want. The freedom here is inconceivable to someone who has spent their entire life in Gaza. The contrast is peculiar, unnerving and yet exhilarating.
Gaza is still inculcated in different aspects of my life: whenever I skype with my family, there is either a power cut or weak net connection and I can hardly hear their voices or see their faces. But this is better than nothing; life teaches me that there is always a bright side.
Another novelty in Sheffield is the multi-culturist nature of the city. Here I behold a community of students from all over the world, with different religions, colour and ethnicity, all of whom get on well and live amongst each other in peace. What I have learnt in the first four weeks cannot be easily squeezed in a few lines.
The ‘Palestine Society – University of Sheffield’ first event was amazing. A lot of people attended a screening of the award-winning ‘Occupation 101′. The film shed light on the realities of the quality of life faced by children living in refugee camps in Gaza or the West Bank. It depicts the atrocities of house demolitions, land confiscation and the daily violence, from the perspective of the youth. I could see people in the audience crying. It all brought back floods of memories of Gaza. I thought of my mom when she got badly affected by phosphorous bombs. I remembered how she needed a few weeks to recover while other needs months or years. I then remembered the sea where I would spend the weekends with my friends. I felt a conflict of emotions afterwards, between hope and despair, the promise of life and death, of love and hatred. The film was a stark reminder and call to justice to free the Palestinian people.
In a meeting with Jill Evans, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for European and International Issues in the European Parliament (EU), I spoke about the issue of the students stuck in Gaza. She was very kind to offer help by sending individual letters to people who can help. The moment I returned home, I wrote an email including a biography of a group of students who want to leave urgently to pursue their studies. Fortunately their prayers were answered and they were able to travel a day after I sent the email. They were at risk of losing their scholarships! I am planning to send her another group of students in the coming days.
Evans has visited both Gaza and the West Bank numerous times since 2000. She discussed the role of the EU in view of the guidelines adopted by the Executive European Commission in June, which stated that illegal settlements will be ineligible for grants, prizes or loans from 2014.
The Sheffield University Student Union actively campaigns against the siege in Gaza, taking practical steps to support Palestinians’ rights to education by fostering links with the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG). The policy was passed by referendum in March 2011 (1754 votes for, 959 against, 1146 abstentions). The Students’ Union resolves to become formally twinned with the IUG, working with students at IUG and other universities to actively campaign against the blockade of Gaza, and lobbying the university to implement an annual scholarship programme for at least one student from Gaza, and to inform Sheffield students, other Students’ Unions and the wider community of developing issues facing Gazan students. This year should be great in terms of working for Palestine.
My first Lecture
“We are the UK’s top politics department for research. We give people the tools to investigate and understand the way power is won and used in our increasingly complex world. Students love our world-class teaching and close sense of community. Every student must be proud she/he is studying in our Politics Department in The University of Sheffield.” The professor said.
I reached the seminar room half an hour prior to my class commencement. When the professor arrived he asked us to move our chairs to form a circle to facilitate the subsequent discussion. One of the most interesting parts was when the professor decided to “socialize” our lecture. He asked every student to speak in one minute about three main points; name, hometown, and hobby. I was quite surprised as everyone likes football and the best team is Arsenal. Many students surprisingly announced their relish in reading sadistic historical stories. “I love WWII books.” a student said pompously.
“Why, what do you love in that book!” the teacher wondered.
“I love Nazi Germany stories, how they fight, and the tools they use!” Answered the student, with zeal.
My turn was the longest. “My name is Malaka. I am originally for Yaffa to the north-west of Palestine. My family was forced to leave in 1948 Nakba to where we now live, Gaza!”
“You are from Gaza! That will be quite helpful in reality. Be ready for loads of questions every lecture about Palestine…” It was interesting that the history of an entire nation of people can be regarded the way a person in a museum looks at a glass cabinet of artifacts. It is sometimes easy to dissociate from the reality that these travesties are ongoing, relentless, and for some, an immediate reality.
I have had the chance to speak in a conference entitled “Confronting Israeli Apartheid; Building the Student Movement for Palestine” 12-13 October in the University of London Union and School of African Studies in London. The conference commenced with a workshop welcome and opening panel to introduce participants to boycotts, divestment and sanction (BDS) and campaigning on campus where participants shared their own experience during a long question and answer session. The conference included sessions on building effective campaigns, explaining Israeli Apartheid, divesting from Israeli apartheid, building an academic boycott, Israeli Apartheid Week and Right to Education Campaign. The final session allowed space for feedback from the previous workshops and discussed and agreed on next steps regarding communication, coordination, and Israeli Apartheid Week 2014. I met with many Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists willing to help and support our cause. That day I had seen enthusiasm like never before. I had the chance to speak in one of the sessions about the effects of Israeli Apartheid on the Palestinian educational system and ways to support in the light of Sheffield-IUG twinning. Ans once again I was moved by the tears in the audience.
My First Eid, and Niece
I was surprised the day I left London when my friend told me happy Eid. “When is Eid” I wondered. “The day after tomorrow!” Having it far away from your family is not at all easy. The night before Eid, I managed to go to a mosque with my friend where I met with many people from Sheffield celebrating in different ways. My friend had plans to travel to see her family in Turkey. She asked me about my plans.
“I really don’t know. I have lectures!” I said. She asked if I will go back to Palestine for the next three days. “If it is that easy, I will not but go. Gaza is the biggest prison where Israel and Egypt, unfortunately, endeavor to intensify as much pressure as they can on us even if we are outside. Rafah crossing which is the only gate I can use to return and spend my holidays is closed.” I spent the whole night skyping with my family and my youngest sister started crying. I couldn’t carry on the call. When I managed to reopen my laptop and re-call my family, I read “Congrats, you have become an aunty”. My sister had given birth and I had become an aunt in the first day of Eid. I realized then that I am not there to touch or hug her.
It is October 18th. I was planning to start my first essay about “Lotus Principle”. Then a message changed my entire day, “Can we meet today at 04:00 pm at Coffee Revolution, a place in Sheffield Student Union?” my friend messaged me. I went. And all my friends were there. I then recognized that it was my birthday! We celebrated together for the first time outside Gaza. It was strange because I noted a greater precedence given to celebrating birthdays compared to our culture back home. Whilst our birthdays are more a celebration of our mothers’ resilience in childbirth, I enjoyed marking this special day as it reminds me of the testament of the value of the individual.
Thursday October 24th
Ally Buckle, the current president of Sheffield University Student Union, messaged me when I was in Gaza asking if I could participate in opening a new building in Sheffield. “If I am in Sheffield, I will have no problem in that. But I don’t know when I will be out of Gaza big prison!” hesitantly I replied.
And it’s October 24th and I am in Sheffield. I was so excited to join Mr. Paul Bloomfield MP for Sheffield Central and the student James Kenny opening the new Student Union building. The moment Mr. Bloomfield said, “We are very pleased here to welcome Malaka from Gaza who will join me opening the new building. This is not only wonderful but quite important to have her sharing us this moment!” He then called James and I to go and got one balloon each then tied them to other balloons. It was an indescribable moment!
The event was preceded by a tour around the new building where groups of students in every corner tried to play a role summarizing a historical event happened years ago in Sheffield. A while after we opened the building, we are asked to take a photo together. And I saw my name engraved in a plaque in the student union wall.
This is an idea that is each day growing in my mind and relates directly back to the millions of Palestinians who each have the right not only for their physical freedom, but for the spiritual freedom to discover and pursue his/her own desires and dreams. This is ultimately what I am striving towards.