Having been immersed in the politics of Palestine, it was interesting to visit Bethlehem University. I was interested in seeing what – if any – impact the crisis had on education in Palestine. In all honesty, I found the trip to Bethlehem University to be most inspiring.
The first thing that struck me was the campus. The campus is superb. The architecture – both inside and outside – is fantastic. The buildings are colourful, impressive and very well maintained, and their desert colours also blend well with the greenery that is dotted around here and there. We were shown inside the University chapel, which was also impressive. Indeed, whereas all of the churches that we had seen on the trip were dedicated to Jesus Christ as an adult, this one was dedicated to him as a child. I felt that it was also a small reminder of the children that were also being affected by the crisis.
As such, talk of the chapel also links nicely to Bethlehem University’s religious setup. Indeed, it is a Catholic institution, started with support from the Vatican and the De La Salle Christian Brothers. However, what is also fascinating is that 71% of its students are Muslim. This is not to say that a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ exists within the University. In fact, it is very much the opposite. It is an example of a place where different religions can co-exist in harmony, something that seems relevant in a conflict where religions appear to have clashed. Furthermore, 75% of its students are also female.
However, having said that, the conflict has had its toll on the University. There is a small memorial on the grounds of the University, commemorating those who had died while serving the institution. Indeed, we had learnt of a student who had died on campus after being shot by the Israeli army. Furthermore, it has also been closed twelve times since its inception, once for up to three years at a time. However, the University still held classes off-campus, to ensure that students were not disadvantaged.
One student, Berlanty Azzam, was another example of how the crisis could interfere with the University’s education. During her final-year, she was detained whilst travelling around the West Bank, was blindfolded and handcuffed, and was then forcibly deported back to her home in Gaza in the middle of the night. Despite her continued efforts and other international pressures, the Israeli authorities would not let her go back to Bethlehem to study. However, in spite of all this, she was able to continue her course via correspondence, and as a result, graduated in 2010. It is a story of how perseverance always prevails.
After having learnt about Berlanty’s story, we spoke to a few of Bethlehem’s students. It was an inspiring Q & A session. One student who I spoke to is just about to enter their final year of her business degree. Having already been to South Korea, she plans to continue travelling and to see more of the world. I have nothing but admiration for the way in which she, along with her fellow students, has refused to let the occupation – however fierce it may be – interfere with their hopes and dreams.
It also hit home for some of us just how lucky we are to be able to study and travel without being watched by an occupying power. Indeed, if only the rest of my colleagues at University were just as aware.