Gaza scholarship – “like a dream come true” for Haya

In 2019, Haya Abdalhadi, received the Gaza Scholarship to study MA Development and Emergency Practice at Oxford Brookes’ renowned Centre for Development and Emergency Practice. She says receiving the scholarship was “like a dream coming true.”

Haya had studied English at university in Gaza, receiving a first class degree, and knew she wanted to come to the UK but wasn’t sure how or when she would be able to.

Her passion is helping people who need it the most and she worked in the humanitarian sector in Gaza, first as a volunteer for the French INGO, Première Urgence Internationale, and then in roles for Médecins du Monde, International Medical Corps and Oxfam.

She has always been interested in humanitarian action and believed that principled humanitarian assistance must respond to vulnerable people’s needs while respecting their dignity as a priority.

“I want to contribute postively”

To further improve her professional skills, Haya wanted to study at postgraduate level. Such courses are not available in Gaza, however, and the cost of studying in the UK was prohibitive. But Haya was determined and selected the course because of its relevance to Gaza’s protracted crisis.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is very severe and I want to contribute positively to improving things. The reputation of the Master’s at Oxford Brookes is well known and directly relevant to the work I was doing. I searched and found this scholarship. This was my chance to come here.”

Travelling from Gaza, even with a confirmed scholarship and university place, is a real challenge. Gaza scholars often do not arrive in time for the start of semester because of delays and barriers beyond their control. Haya’s experience was typical.

“It’s very complicated to leave Gaza because the borders are often closed, whether from the Egyptian side or the Israeli side. I had to have an interview to get my visa and then it was delayed. And I also had to wait for hours to get my permit to cross the border. But it was worth it.”

“It was amazing to meet students from lots of different countries”

Having finally got here, Haya was persistent to make the opportunity she had worked hard for.

“It was amazing to meet students from lots of different countries – other Middle East countries, and from China, Spain, Greece, Nigeria, South Sudan… most of the students on my course were international students and so I learnt about their cultures as well as their experiences working in the humanitarian field.”

And she was eager other students, teachers and anybody interested in the situation in Palestine would learn about Gaza from her.

“I was keen to bring Gaza to the heart of the discussion. For a module on the refugee experience, I presented on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. I could be the voice for people, tell the stories of those who couldn’t come here and talk about the truth of life in Gaza – not just our suffering but our strength, how we face each new day striving for the positive. So I was happy about that.

“But it also made me sad because it brought back painful memories of the wars, of how people have lost their homes and family members.

“Once I finished, my friends gave me warm applause and said ‘this is really informative. Now we know what it means to be in Gaza’. And I got distinction for the module, so that was good!”

“I’m sure that all Palestinian students on the Gaza scholarship have felt the same duty to present on the reality of life in Gaza”

Haya feels cross-cultural learning is a benefit that the Gaza Scholarship brings to Brookes, and to Oxford as a whole, with scholars’ authentic accounts of life in Gaza.

“I have been amazed by how many people here are interested in Palestine and want to be supportive. I was nominated to speak at a Palestinian History Tapestry exhibition, where I spoke about what it means to live in Palestine and the key role of Palestinian women in preserving the history and heritage of Palestine using their embroidery skills.

“I’m sure that all Palestinian students on the Gaza scholarship have felt the same duty to present on the reality of life in Gaza. It’s an exchange – we learn from others here about what they have gone through, and they learn from us about how we live our lives.”

“Most of my friends here returned home but I couldn’t”

As with so many people around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic affected Haya. It impacted her study – forcing the interactive and lively group discussions that she enjoyed so much to be conducted online, and delaying her dissertation. It was also difficult for her personally.

“It impacted me a lot, particularly at the beginning with all the restrictions and rules. I felt far from home. Most of my friends here returned home but I couldn’t. I knew that if I did return home I could not come back to complete my study. It was really challenging.”

But daily calls with her family, where she reassured them that she was safe, helped her cope. And she also developed new skills.

“I discovered my cooking skills! I cooked Maqloubah and Shrimp Tagine!”

Haya has enjoyed her time at Brookes, and in Oxford.

“It’s been a very inspiring and unique experience for me. Brookes really welcomes international students. It promotes diversity and equality – I have really felt that since being here.

“And I love Oxford! People are welcoming and friendly. I really enjoy the history, and of course it’s really good for students.”

“I am keen to work with refugees and marginalised communities”

But now, more than anything, she wants to return to Gaza and put into practice what she has learnt. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, she does not know when that will be possible.

“Hopefully I can return to Gaza as I really want to contribute positively to the situation there. If I can’t return right now then I am keen to work with refugees and marginalised communities in other countries – that work is needed everywhere. But returning to Gaza is my main goal.”

“I want my people to live a decent life”

If coming to Oxford Brookes was “like a dream come true” for Haya, she also has a dream for the future of her country.

“In Gaza, basic human rights are being violated. I want my people to live a decent life, in peace. After so many years of suffering and sacrifices, we deserve to be respected as human beings – to be supported and to be listened to.

“Change won’t happen in just one moment. It requires a huge effort and also patience, but step by step it is possible. It is time for us to live freely and peacefully, to see the world and discover it. We do deserve that.”

“This scholarship has opened the door to a brighter future for me”

“Indeed, this scholarship has opened the door to a brighter future for me and above all, I am in awe of my family for all their priceless support and encouragement throughout my study in Oxford.”

Hopefully, Haya will soon be able to return home to help. And supporters of the Gaza Scholarship can feel proud that they have contributed to making Haya’s dream come true.

Words by Sirius Gibson
Photographs courtesy of Haya Abdalhadi