Right to an Education speakers interviewed in Tikkun
Listening to Palestinian Voices: The Fight for Education Tour
by Wendy Elisheva Somerson, April 13th, 2011 | Photos by Emma Klein
This spring Jewish Voice for Peace (I am a founding member of the Seattle Chapter) is sponsoring a tour of young Palestinian activists to speak in over fifteen cities in the US to discuss the challenges facing Palestinian students who live under Israeli military occupation. I was fortunate to hear Mira Dabit and Hanna Qassis speak in Seattle, and I also got a chance to interview them about right to education issues in Palestine, their lives under occupation, and their hopes for a better future.
At a talk at Seattle University on April 11, 2010, they both spoke movingly about the role of education in Palestine. Mira posited that education has been important to Palestinians because the loss of their land in 1948 meant that many Palestinians also lost their homes, businesses, and livelihoods. Education was what they had left, and she sees it as a tool for Palestinians to tell their stories and educate people about their lives.
She explained that during the first Intifada (1987-1993) Palestinian education was declared illegal. All eleven universities and colleges were closed, and over one thousand primary schools were closed. Beginning in 1989, even Palestinian nursery schools were closed. Students and teachers were arrested for carrying books and held indefinitely under administrative detention. Nonetheless, Palestinians refused to give up their right to education; they held classes in mosques, offices, private homes, and even sometimes at checkpoints where they were invariably arrested.
Hanna spoke about how just showing up for classes is an act of resistance in Palestine. Students have difficulties getting to classes because they have to pass through checkpoints where they experience constant delays, harassment and humiliation. Dorms are constantly raided, schools are occupied, and students arbitrarily arrested. Students can be arrested for “illegal student activism,” which can mean being part of any student activity group, including a drama club.
They tied their stories about trying to get an education under the occupation to a plea for Americans to join the Palestinian civil society’s call for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). In particular, they highlighted JVP’s TIAA CREF campaign, which is demanding that one of the world’s largest retirement funds divest from companies that profit from the occupation.
I was honored to be able to ask Mira and Hanna a little about what this tour has been like for them so far and to hear more of their personal stories.
W: Can you talk about how the occupation has affected your own educations?
M: People do not seem to understand that there is no part of our lives that is not affected by the occupation. The majority of Palestinians do not know what it means to be free. There are restrictions on our movement, our education, our speech, and our even our access to food, water, and shelter. As a way to counter all this repression, we turn to education as a tool to express ourselves.
As a young person, there have always been restrictions on my access to education. As a child during the second Intifada, we faced constant harassment, military incursions into our cities, and curfews. In 2003, in Ramallah, there was a three month curfew where we couldn’t leave our homes to go to school; we couldn’t get food or medicine. On the way to university, we had to face a checkpoints every day; horrible things happen at the checkpoints depending on the whims of the soldiers. Sometimes they pull aside all the men with gel in their hair. Sometimes they make a woman in a hijab kiss any nearby Palestinian man by threatening that if she doesn’t follow their orders, he will be arrested. Just getting to the university is traumatic and difficult for students.
H: The occupation forces affect us psychologically. Instead of studying for exams or writing, we are often worried about family or friends or how we will get to class the next day. Even if the military presence is not in our cities, we still hear the helicopters and tanks, and the news of more military operations. When it’s not in our faces; it’s on our minds. As an undergraduate, often the occupation forces would surround the university, shooting rubber bullets and tear gas. Students are often injured, and everybody suffers psychological damage.
I remember waking up one day when I was first grade, and my mom told me to go back to sleep. I could hear the loudspeaker from the jeep saying there was a curfew. This continued all week. I was born a year after the Sabra and Shatila massacres. As soon as I knew what was happening around me in the world, I knew there was an occupation. I’ve seen machine guns and military jeeps throughout my whole life.
I entered the first grade during the first Intifada, and then I graduated from high school and got my BA during the second Intifada. A lot of my friends were illegally arrested and kidnapped from their homes. I was wounded. My brother was jailed for “student activities” that he supposedly did in 2008, and he’s still in jail. It affects every human being in the Occupied territories. It’s not something that just some people go through; you go through it whether you want to or not. That was our norm. I remember one night when there was no sound of a helicopter over my house, and I could not sleep because I was so used to that noise. Calm means trouble. When it gets quiet, I feel that something bad is going to happen.