Dr Helen Murray is a Research Fellow in the Political Economy of Education at the University of Sussex. She is a long term supporter of Fobzu's work, a former trustee and a campaigner for the right to education in Palestine. This month, Helen spoke to Fobzu about her support for education in Palestine and why Fobzu's work is so valuable at a time when pressure is mounting to restrict support for Palestinian civil society.
Can you tell us a little about your involvement with Fobzu and how you came across our work?
My involvement with Birzeit and Palestinian education goes back to the late ‘90s. I was a student when I first visited Palestine in 1998. I was involved in community activities in the West Bank and in Hebron. I visited Birzeit University (BZU) and I was blown away by the commitment of BZU to social and political change; the University played a crucial role in ensuring students from different backgrounds were able to access education, including students from rural areas and Gaza. Bringing students from all over Palestine to be part of a national institution was a key focus of the University. In many ways, BZU played a role that the state would usually take on elsewhere in that the University was invested in a huge number of community activities with initiatives focusing on public health, women’s rights, water rights, and other important issues.
I later applied to the international student programme at BZU in Palestine and Arabic studies. It was at this point that I went back to study at BZU for a year. I studied Arabic and a number of other modules. We were able to choose from a wide range of subjects such as Arabic Contemporary Thought, Women’s Studies and more. This was a very rich and informative experience. I studied at BZU in 1999. This was post-Oslo when the mainstream rhetoric was that of a move towards peace. Yet, the situation was actually getting worse in the West Bank. More settlements were being built and further restrictions were being imposed by the Israeli occupation. In 2000 the second Intifada erupted in response to the worsening situation.
In 2004, I went back to BZU and worked on the Right to Education Campaign. The Right to Education Campaign focused on assisting the push for lifting the restrictions and roadblocks imposed against BZU. This was an initiative seeking international support to help challenge these restrictions. At this point I worked closely with Fobzu as a coordinator with the Right to Education Campaign. This project was funded by UNAIS and Fobzu supported the Campaign both in terms of funding and in a more substantive way; Fobzu assisted with procuring student photography, building links with other Palestinian universities and by documenting student life at other institutions. We did a lot on students from Gaza, many of whom were being removed and deported from BZU at the time. There was a huge drop in numbers of students from Gaza who were enrolled at BZU. Fobzu was key to strengthening the links between universities, student unions and academics as part of our work. I then came back to London in 2006 and became a Fobzu board member.
What do you think the value of Fobzu’s work is and why are you a Fobzu Friend?
My formative experience at BZU allowed me to witness the crucial role that Palestinian universities play in supporting Palestinian society on a community level. After I studied at BZU, I went into the international context and realised the extent to which universities were missing from conversations surrounding access to education. There was a huge focus on schooling, which is, of course, important. However, conversations around higher education were virtually non-existent.
Fobzu is one of a handful of organisations that has remained committed to ensuring that Palestinian universities can play their part in supporting Palestinian society. Fobzu has always worked with a vision towards the future and the organisation’s vision has always embodied forward-thinking action. This is crucial, now more than ever, as pressure continues to mount on international organisations supporting the Palestinian cause and as civil space and dialogue around Palestine continues to shrink as a result. Fobzu is a small organisation and it is often punching above its weight. Fobzu’s role is not a niche role, yet it is one of the few organisations that maintains active support for civil society organisations on the ground in Palestine. In the midst of increasing and oppressive political pressure, you need islands and beacons of hope. Whenever I visited the BZU campus, this was something you really felt. Even with the existing challenges, there was a sense of hope which uplifts you. This is why Fobzu’s work is so important. This work comes with an insistence on fulfilling a vision of hope in the midst of everything going on. This is also why Palestinian universities are under persistent attack: because they represent an alternative vision of hope and for the future, and there is a real desire to quash this.
BZU has a history of resilient education. When they had no alternative, BZU academics delivered classes in mosques, churches, cars, homes; in any and all available spaces. This created a resilient form of underground education which led to a different kind of pedagogy emerging; this came to influence visions for reform and an interactive model of teaching and learning. This changed dynamics and ways of conceptualising education. Because of the ongoing limitations that Palestinian institutions face, this kind of progressive pedagogy never fully came to life. However, in the context of the wider Middle East region, BZU is recognised to be a very progressive academic institution despite social and political pressures. This is distinct to Palestine, compared to many other institutions in the region. BZU is highly respected precisely for that reason.
Fobzu’s history, as an organisation working in tandem with BZU and supporting Palestinian higher education is exceptionally important and it is now more crucial than ever that Fobzu is able to continue delivering this support.
To support Fobzu's work, please consider becoming a Fobzu Friend from just £3 a month low/unwaged and £10 a month waged. Clear below for more information and to sign up.