In June, Sandra Hamrouni became the newest addition to Fobzu's Board of Trustees. In an interview with Fobzu's e-newsletter Access Online, she discusses what inspires her, working for the British Council under occupation and the importance of promoting Palestinian education.
You've enjoyed a long and varied career in education around the world. What attracted you to working in the education sector?
Education is a great leveller and as someone from a lower middle class background with working class grandparents the value of education, learning and teaching was drilled into me. Whilst I was at university I became interested in the Zimbabwean and Namibian struggles for independence and all the African students I met talked about their experiences before coming to study in the UK. This led me to join VSO and I went to teach English and set up a library in a secondary school in rural Kenya where we lived and worked without electricity or running water. This brought home to me even more the power of education to change lives.
After gaining teaching qualifications and teaching for a year in the UK I continued my career overseas, joining the British Council. The education and cultural relations agenda of the British Council provided me with countless opportunities for professional development, challenging stereotypes, and working with diverse teams to help make a positive difference.
You were Country Director of the British Council in Palestine from 2009 to 2012, having previously managed teaching centres in Tunisia, Syria, Oman and Spain, and serving as Country Director in Bahrain. How did the experience of working and delivering programmes in a country under military occupation compare?
I arrived in Palestine in early January 2009 in the middle of the War on Gaza, (“Operation Cast Lead”), and the previous director had died after a long illness, so the team were understandably demoralised and anxious. There was a lot of team-building and programme development to be done to improve our visibility, to build relationships with Palestinian organisations, and to promote understanding and appreciation between the UK and Palestine.
Although I went through multiple checkpoints daily I was able to use the ones reserved for foreigners, so I didn’t face long journeys as a result of the separation wall. However, our Palestinian staff and most of our partners and stakeholders suffered greatly from long queues, checkpoints suddenly re-locating, curfews, illegal settler activities, the separation wall and a myriad of rules and regulations imposed by the occupation that affected every aspect of their daily lives. Meetings often had to be postponed, events were delayed, everything took longer to organise. Luckily the creativity of the Palestinian people I worked with meant they always had a Plan B and a Plan C because we could be sure that Plan A would be thwarted by the military occupation!
The team in Palestine are very special. I learnt so much from their patience, resilience and humour. I was bowled over and humbled by their energy, enthusiasm, amazing hospitality and courage. I was very impressed by the value placed on education and training by the students, teachers and young professionals I met during delivery of our programmes. Seeing on a daily basis how the occupation forces and settlers attempted to humiliate Palestinians, the injustice of the situation and the lack of action by the international community was heartbreaking, but I look back at those years as the most rewarding of my career.
During your time as Country Director in Palestine you introduced and delivered innovative programmes supporting Palestinian education. Could you tell us about some of your work?
We worked with partners such as the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, university heads, many NGOs, and the business community to deliver a range of English language and teacher training programmes in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and school leadership across Palestine, including in Gaza with UNRWA. We delivered IELTS exams to facilitate university study overseas. We hosted Study Tours to the UK for heads of Palestinian universities to build capacity and increase UK-Palestinian university links, and we linked up alumni of UK universities in Gaza and the West Bank via satellite for the first time ever.
I think I am most proud of the initiative I took to introduce and develop HESPAL (Higher Education Scholarships for Palestinians) back in 2009. The rationale for the scholarship was to build capacity by developing junior academics in Palestinian universities as many of the “old guard” trained in the 1980s were retiring. Launched in 2010, over 200 masters and PhD scholars have studied at UK universities and it’s been called “transformative” by UK and Palestinian ministers. What was wonderful was that over time several of the masters students did so well that the UK universities offered them PhD scholarships afterwards. Feedback from stakeholders shows it is a continued success.
Why did you want to become a Fobzu Trustee and why do you think it’s important to promote Palestinian higher education in the UK?
Fobzu is one of the oldest Palestinian solidarity organisations in the UK and has earned itself an excellent reputation as a serious and trusted partner. It is the only British charity of its kind focussing on higher education advancement in Palestine and has close links with both UK and Palestinian higher education and a historic connection with Birzeit University. It was therefore the natural choice when I returned to the UK and wanted to offer my services to support Palestinians’ access to education and therefore to better employment opportunities.
Palestinian students and university faculty are some of the most creative, talented and committed in the world. More capacity building, better access to materials, and increased international links – with UK universities for example – will invigorate Palestinian universities at this critical time
Palestinians must have the right to self-determination, equal access to education and development, and must be able to live a life of dignity and fulfilment in the international community. The UK has a deep historical relationship with Palestine and we need to acknowledge our special responsibilities in ensuring Palestinians achieve justice, equality and freedom. Fobzu, with its focus on education and on building links between the UK and Palestine, is well-placed to remind British people of this, and to persuade us to take action. I am excited to be part of that and to be working with a fantastic group of people on supporting higher education in Palestine. Of all my posts I had the strongest sense of purpose, achievement and fulfilment in Palestine and it’s good to “give back” even in a small way.