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.

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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.

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

I was ignorant of the Jesus College, and so here’s more about its scholarship, including a link to donate to it:

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.

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.

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