20-year old Ahmed Baraka from the war-torn Gaza Strip in Palestine has arrived in Bristol this week to begin his undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering at UWE. He is the first student from Gaza to be awarded the University of the West of England’s Conflict Zone Bursary.
1400 Palestinians were killed and Gaza was reduced to rubble during the Israeli attack “Operation Cast Lead” in the winter of 2008/9.As part of an international outcry, UWE students occupied the Frenchay Campus. One of their demands was that the University “champion the real people behind the politics who are in intolerable situations and are experiencing unimaginable suffering”. As a result of negotiation with the University the Conflict Zone Bursary fund was set up.
Ahmed described the difficulties experienced by young people studying in Gaza . He said “ Israel restricts fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip so the power-stations can work for only a few hours per day. There’s often no light to study in the evenings. With no cooling fans homes are stifling heat and it is difficult to sleep. Lack of electricity affects study, particularly those in the engineering and science field. Although there is reasonable food supply at the moment, there is often a shortage of gas for cooking.” But for Ahmed, the biggest problem is the lack of freedom to travel. “We don’t have life. We don’t have freedom. Gaza is like a prison”.
The 20- year- old narrowly escaped death when the Israeli army shelled a house close to his school. Despite these problems, Ahmed graduated from his school with outstanding grades in maths and science. He then went on to study Physics, Arabic and Palestinian History for two years at the Islamic University of Gaza. The university suffered damage during the Israeli attacks and as Ahmed explains “the laboratories are under equipped, the libraries are crowded and books are in short supply. I’m looking forward to the facilities at UWE and the companionship of fellow students.”
When he first received news of the bursary to come to UWE, Ahmed’s mother was reluctant to let him go. She didn’t like the idea of him going abroad alone. But his father and the rest of the family immediately understood that “this is going to be my life and this is a very good chance”.
As for all Palestinians, travelling abroad has been an enormous challenge for Ahmed. Not only is it the first time he has been away from his family but it’s the first time he’s been outside of the besieged Gaza Strip Ahmed is stoic about his experiences. He says “It’s worth the challenge to get a good education”. He dreams of creating a Technological and Scientific Research Centre in Gaza . In Ahmed’s opinion, such a centre would be hugely beneficial to Gazan students, helping to lessen their isolation from the international community.
Joe Assily was an undergraduate in Sociology when he joined the occupation. He now is working in Reading and saving money for a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies. He says “This is a really proud moment for all of us. It just shows that peaceful direct action can change lives. Solidarity with Palestinians from Gaza and across the West Bank is very important as they are denied their right to proper education by the Israeli occupation”.
Yazan Abu Jbara is a British-Palestinian born in Jordan . He was an undergraduate in English & Spanish at the time of the occupation. He still lives in Bristol , he is helping Ahmed settle into live at UWE, and will shortly starting as a PhD student at Exeter University . He recalls “At first there was a mixed reaction from other students, some complaining about the inconvenience. But eventually the suffering of the people of Gaza was stronger, more and more students joined the occupation”. He says “Ahmed’s arrival here has been wonderful. Everyone who worked so hard to make this possible will be overjoyed.”
Support for the occupation at UWE and solidarity with Palestine comes at a price. Earlier this year Yazan was denied entry to attend an academic conference in the West Bank . Despite having no criminal record and his travel plans being approved at a high level by the Israeli authorities, on arrival he was jailed and subsequently deported. Ed Hill of the Bristol Palestine Solidarity Campaign says “Israel can be very vindictive. They scan the media and the internet checking for names. Once you’re known about you’ll likely be refused entry to Palestine , even as a tourist. It’s all very sinister. So well done to the UWE students for their solidarity with Palestine and for standing up for justice”.
The Conflict Zone Bursary provides £45,000 to cover tuition, living and travel expenses. Money is contributed from the University and from local fund-raising schemes. Students have run fund-raising events including a high-glow gig by the London-based Rapper – Lowkey. Generous support has come from local citizens and from the local Muslim community. The University has more information on the Conflict Zone Bursary and accepts donations via its website
Fund-raising is already underway and supporters are hoping to reach their target for a second bursary. Ahmed says that “while there are other scholarships in the UK for Masters and PhD, without the support of the UWE students, it would have been difficult to get a scholarship as an undergraduate.”
Bristol has a long history of links with Palestine . From peace campaigners to faith groups, from football teams to circus performers to Banksy, many Bristolians have visited Palestine . Following the attacks on Gaza in winter 2008/9 a group Bristol-Gaza-Link was formed, with all party support from the City Council. It organised several aid convoys to Gaza including an ambulance and a giant articulated truck decorated with images of Wallace and Grommit. In May 2010, two Bristol citizens were within inches of death on-board the aid ship, Mavi Marmara, when it was attacked by Israeli commandos. Bristol was also the first local council in the country passing a motion condemning these attacks and calling for boycott and divestment of Israel . Local campaigners build awareness of Palestine issues through meetings, boycott actions, and cultural events. Bristol also hosts a Palestine Film Festival at the Watershed every year.