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Omar Deriah , Right to Education Campaign, 12 October 2006
It was maybe my third time in Ramallah. I was nervous. I’d never been to Birzeit, I didn’t even know how to get there. As I looked around for a taxi to the university, everything and everyone around me looked so strange, so new. All I knew was my village and Nablus.
Finally I heard a voice calling, “Birzeit! Birzeit! Taxi to Birzeit University!” As I got in I couldn’t stop asking myself, “Are my clothes ok? Will the money I brought be enough? What does Birzeit look like, anyway? Am I really ready for this?”
All I could do, once I arrived at the campus, was watch the students around me, absorb my new surroundings. They were so different to what I knew. These people knew what they were talking about – I certainly didn’t! I remember watching this guy and girl talking together. I was stood watching them for maybe 15 minutes, wondering, Will I ever be able to talk like them? Will I ever talk to a girl like this guy?
This was my first day at Birzeit University. My name is Omar, and I’m originally from a village near Nablus, in Palestine. Today, four years down the road, I know I’m a totally different person than I was that day. My time at Birzeit changed me more than I could have imagined, and for that I am very grateful.
Birzeit University is a very diverse community, which is unusual here. The Israeli occupation has isolated all Palestinian cities from each other, and it’s not easy to get permission to go from one district to another. So, even though Tulkarem is only half an hour away from Nablus, I’ve never been there and have no idea what it’s like; Gaza is like another world for me. Birzeit, though, is a place where you can meet people from all these other worlds. But maybe even more important than the geographic diversity of the students, is the diversity of ideas that they bring with them. At Birzeit you’ll find the most religious Muslims, you’ll find Christians, you’ll find non-believers. There are people on the left and people on the right. And then there are the posh students, who are in a class of their own. This may seem normal for you, but for me it was the first time I realized all these different people existed.
The diversity of the students at Birzeit, and my conversations with them, was what allowed me to build my character for myself – to ask questions and come to my own conclusions, rather than just believing the only things I had been exposed to in my small village.
Most first year students at Birzeit get arrested at some point by the occupation forces, so they can get information about us, particularly about the way we think, so they can keep tabs on us whilst we’re at uni. In my first year, the army came and took people randomly every week. When they came for me, the soldier who put the handcuffs on me started talking to me. He was whispering, so the captain didn’t hear him. “How do you live like this? How do you handle it?” he asked. “We manage,” I told him. “That’s all we can do. And it’s not like you – you have many options we don’t have. All we have now is education, so I study.” He told me that at his university he had problems paying the tuition, and how did I find the money for it? I told him, “It’s hard, but it’s all I have, so I find a way, somehow.” When I looked at him, I could barely make out his face: it was covered in black paint. And I thought, This is what the apartheid system here does: it covers this guy’s face, gives him a gun, and makes him a soldier. And it makes me a target, a suspect. But at the end, he was a soldier, and he tied me up, and took me away.
They drove us through the Israeli settlements all around Ramallah. I was lucky – I was the only prisoner, out of the 70 or so, who wasn’t blindfolded, and this was the first time I really saw Palestine. It was beautiful – I saw the trees, and the grass and the mountains. It was the first time I could see something more than the road between Nablus and Birzeit. And I was contemplating the irony of the situation: when I’m a prisoner, I can see more of my own country than when I’m not. And I found myself looking at the trees of those settlements, wondering, Are those Israeli trees? Or are they Palestinian trees?
Over the past four years, I’ve studied computer science, anthropology, business, philosophy. I’ve met poets, artists, people from all over the world. I’ve learned about music and politics. I’ve been in a play. I’ve read, discussed and argued about Lacan, Marx, Said, Descartes. Now, during my final year, I’m ready to talk about all these things, and use what I’ve learned in a practical way. I have plans to set up an annual economic magazine to enhance research skills and knowledge of the local community, I’m setting up a student committee to work with the Right to Education campaign, and I’m involved in a cultural club.
After four years, every time I see the boy and girl I watched on my first day, I know that I’ve come even farther than I had hoped. After four years, I know that those trees are just trees that come from the land, that have always been there, even before occupation.