The struggles of a Palestinian student to finish her studies

Back in July, I visited the occupied city of Bethlehem and spent time at the world-renowned university there. Its head is New Zealand Father Peter Bray, a compassionate man dedicated to improving the lives of his students. He wrote a report just before Christmas and now adds another one, this time on his recent trip to Gaza:

12th January 2010

Greetings again as we move into the New Year. I hope it has begun well for you and that it unfolds in a very satisfying way.

After my Christmas letter a number of people asked me whether it was at all possible for Bethlehem University to do something to enable Berlanty to graduate. What Bethlehem University has been doing from the time Berlanty was forcibly detained and returned to Gaza was to make arrangements to enable her to graduate. We did not talk about these arrangements at all because the Israelis would have used it against us and said there was no real need for Berlanty to return to Bethlehem University if she could graduate from Gaza. When the Israeli court finally decided not to allow her to return to Bethlehem University we focused on making sure she would graduate. She has obviously been disadvantaged because she could not return, but her teachers worked with her by e-mail, by phone, by fax, by sending material with people going down to Gaza etc to enable her to do the work and sit the exams that would help her complete the requirements.

This past weekend I was down in Gaza. I went down with Br Joe and Fr Thomas on Friday 8th January and returned Sunday evening. I wanted to meet up with the students who have enrolled at Bethlehem University but have not been given permission to attend. I also wanted to meet some graduates but the special reason was to be present at the mass on Sunday 10th January. I had been in touch with the Papal Nuncio, who happens to be Bethlehem University Chancellor, to coordinate with him to be in Gaza and say the 10.00am mass and then be present at a ceremony afterwards. The ceremony was to show support for the students and to make a presentation to Berlanty recognising that Bethlehem University had worked with her to meet the requirements in order to graduate.

At the ceremony I spoke about how we had worked with those students who had enrolled at Bethlehem University but could not get permission to travel. I mentioned that we hired a teacher in Gaza to teach one of our courses and I was able to give their grades to three of the students who attended the ceremony. These students are very keen to get to Bethlehem University and we have the “Gaza Initiative” as a way to make that happen. Many people have contributed financially to that initiative and we are very grateful to them for that support which enables Bethlehem University to fund the course we offered and hopefully help fund the one this coming semester. This fund is ongoing and we really appreciate the financial support shown by so many people.

The Nuncio spoke very forcefully about the importance of Bethlehem University standing against injustice and doing all we can for people from Gaza.

After focusing on the current students, I then spoke about how Bethlehem University worked with Berlanty, in spite of the restrictions placed on her, to enable her to meet the requirements to complete her degree. I mentioned that Bethlehem University was determined that the Israeli military would not prevent her from graduating. This was well received by the people who gathered because in many ways they feel abandoned and forgotten. So to see that Bethlehem University has not forgotten them and was prepared to work so hard on Berlanty’s behalf was a source of hope for them. I also reinforced the Nuncio’s message that Bethlehem University is committed to serve the Palestinian people, and this includes the people in Gaza.

It was a simple ceremony where the Chancellor made a presentation to Berlanty recognising the work she had done over the four years she had been at Bethlehem University. We were able to have Berlanty’s father present along with some relatives and friends. Her mother had come to Bethlehem for her brother’s wedding and, unfortunately, is having difficulty in getting permission to cross Israel to get back. She was very disappointed to miss the ceremony. The ceremony really touched the people who were there because it showed that Bethlehem University can work against oppression and injustice and find ways to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people.

I was so proud of Berlanty and the way she responded at the ceremony. As I look back on what has happened to her over the past few months I am amazed at her resilience and the obvious strength she has. Seeing her respond in the way she has makes all the hassles we face worthwhile! Such determination and resilience is inspiring.

We are currently working with Gisha, the Israeli human rights group, and a group in the USA called Kairos, to get Berlanty to the USA. Br Jack and I will be in Washington DC at the end of January and the first week of February. We are working with Kairos to organise and fund Berlanty to be there at the same time. We are also trying to arrange for an invitation from US senators and members of Congress to be issued along with others from Universities and some significant people in the USA. We are currently waiting for the Israeli military to allow Berlanty to go from Gaza to the US Consulate offices in Jerusalem for a VISA interview with the US Consulate. Once the Israelis give Berlanty permission to go for this interview, then we are relatively confident she will get the visa from the American Consulate to enter the USA. If the trip comes off it will provide an opportunity for Berlanty to speak to some of the policy makers in Washington and also to do a number of presentations to groups of Americans. She will be well looked after by Kairos who will coach her and make the necessary arrangements. She is really looking forward to the trip, the possibility of telling her story and most importantly working for other students in Gaza to have an opportunity to come to Bethlehem University or other Palestinian Universities in the West Bank. The longest flight she has ever been on was one from Cairo to Amman, so this will be quite an adventure for her.

Getting Berlanty to the USA will be a chance for people there to be made more aware of the injustice happening in Gaza. If someone like Berlanty can be treated in the way she was there is little hope for anyone else. Both the Israeli High Court and Israeli military declared she was not a security risk. That was not the point. The point was she was from Gaza. Because of that she was denied the right to finish her education at a university of her choice because she happens to come from Gaza. It is amazing that where they come from can be so used against these students even when security is not the excuse for refusing them. There are many students in Gaza who would love to come to Bethlehem University but have been denied travel permission. It is this injustice we want to overturn and Berlanty is the face of that effort.

On Friday 8th after we arrived in Gaza we visited Berlanty at her home. It was wonderful to sit down in their simple house and be welcomed so graciously by Berlanty and her father. It was heart-warming to sit and listen to Berlanty talk about her adventure in coming to Bethlehem University and the struggle she went through at the start as a seventeen year old risking everything to get an education at Bethlehem University. She said she understood when she came that she would not return home to Gaza until after she had finished – would not get to see her family, would be alone in Bethlehem. Such commitment is amazing.

Berlanty spoke about what it was at Bethlehem University that made the experience of almost four year so life-giving for her. The things we speak about as creating an oasis of peace and being a beacon of hope were very real to her. She treasured the memories of being on campus, of being cared for, of being challenged in class, of being inspired to follow her dreams etc. She also mentioned that all the hassles, pain and separation were worthwhile and she would do it all again. She is convinced she made the right decision to step out and come to Bethlehem University. Listening to her was humbling and so affirming and made me very aware of what a remarkable young woman she is. The experience challenged me to ensure that what we are doing at Bethlehem University is the best it can be because of what students such as Berlanty invest in the place.

Apart from the students Br Joe and I also had the chance to meet up with a group of graduates of Bethlehem University who are in Gaza. There are some 450 graduates and students from Bethlehem University in Gaza. However, after 2000 and the second Intifada the Israelis will not allow any students to come from Gaza to the West Bank.

It was again an encouraging and uplifting experience to meet these people. Some graduated back in the 1980s and 1990s and have since moved into significant positions within Gaza where they are having a very positive impact on the lives of people there. There are a number of people involved in education. One is working with teachers in primary and secondary to improve the way they are teaching. He is endeavouring to have the teachers link what the children are doing in school to what is happening around them. It is a challenging and important role. Such people are embodying the mission of Bethlehem University to be of service to the Palestinian people.

When I was speaking with one of the graduates he was telling me about the school where he is vice principal. He spoke with passion about the ways they are working with young people despite not having adequate resources, but then drifted into the need he has for professional development both in his administrative area but also in his teaching area of chemistry. He spoke of how he longs to get to an in-service course where he could be challenged and enlightened in his field of chemistry. However, none is available! One of the things Bethlehem University has done is set up an alumni office. We have a man employed there who is connecting with graduates and maybe we can find some short course for this man and find a way to have him sponsored to get the opportunity for the in-service course for which he longs.

The Bethlehem University graduates are very well respected in Gaza and having a qualification from Bethlehem University means they are sought after to do thing that will really benefit the people around them. That is also encouraging. Again I am impressed with the resilience of these people who spoke about the abuse of the war at the beginning of last year, but also about how they are rebuilding lives and helping people live in this awful situation with some sense of hope. I am in awe of them and the incredible hopeful attitude they bring to what they are doing. When I happened to mention this I was told they have that attitude because of their experience at Bethlehem University! What a challenge we have to provide more people with such an attitude!

I had the chance to be driven around Gaza city and it is appalling what has happened and is happening there. I saw the destruction from the war and the squalor in which people are forced to live because of the blockade imposed by Israel. I saw young children trying to sell sweets to motorists at intersections and people reverting to primitive means of transport and work in order to survive. There were many horse-drawn and donkey-drawn carts in the streets because the cost of fuel coming in through the tunnels is so high. I saw men with hammers breaking up concrete from bombed buildings to recover the steel reinforcing so they could sell it to get some money to survive.

What amazed me, however, were the young people. There are many children on the streets. As we drove past one bombed out building I noticed a small group of boys playing what looked like marbles in the dirt! A simple game taking place in the midst of the destruction as a way to focus their attention and forget the conditions. There were other simple games children were playing which revealed that even when things around them are so bad, children still want to be children.

We drove through a refugee camp where some 70,000 live. Some of the camp had been targeted in the bombing and the conditions under which people were attempting to exist were inhuman. In reflecting on crisscrossing the city I began to wonder how come I have been so blessed and not had to endure such things? The mystery of life and the fate of people continue to amaze me.

I could go on, but this is getting very long! I am so conscious of how fortunate I am to have had the opportunities in my life and to have the freedom to move where I like. I take those things so much for granted and it is only when I am confronted with the differences for the people in Gaza that I am made conscious of how I have been blessed. The challenge in justice is to use that blessing to address the injustice I see these people facing.

Please pray for these people and pray for us here that we will have the wisdom and courage to do the very best thing for the young people entrusted to us. You might also consider making some contribution to help Bethlehem University in its efforts to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people and particularly those students in Gaza.

Best wishes,

Br Peter Bray FSC, EdD

Vice Chancellor