A human shock: from conflict zone to Cambridge
When students from conflict areas and especially females from the Gaza Strip ask me whether I would encourage them to study abroad for their PhDs, I give a tentative answer: “It depends”. While higher education is very important for both men and women, I know from my own experience that some students from conflict areas will struggle to survive their PhD journey abroad due to the immense psychological pressure they may feel if their universities do not offer them the necessary support.
Coming from the besieged Gaza Strip to study for my PhD in the UK, my journey was in many ways similar to a voyage into space. As an astronaut, Chris Hadfield wrote that he had to live with the idea that when he was on Earth, he might never travel into space again - and if he did, he might never get back to Earth. Similarly, due to the siege in Gaza, I had one of two choices as a student at Cambridge: either to be in Gaza or out of it. I did not want to risk being locked inside Gaza since the borders are almost permanently closed and their occasional opening is unpredictable. For that reason, I see myself as an astronaut, a Gaza Cambridge astronaut.
When an astronaut leaves Earth, they leave gravity behind and the rules of life change. This brings a physiological as well as a psychological response which is significantly disturbing. This is also my experience.
My family moved to Gaza from Kuwait in 1990 when I was 13. This was a huge shift for me. As refugees in Kuwait, our life was centred around education and academic achievement. There was a huge library in our home, we had a piano and my parents talked to us regularly about the importance of education. When I moved to Gaza, a girl my age was considered as a bride in waiting. I attended my classmates' weddings. There were restrictions on my movement, dress and speech for security, political and cultural reasons, which were very often justified by religious texts. My aspirations to go to university became an exception, my desire to study at postgraduate level a dream.
Living under occupation, I also lost any sense of control over my environment. The spoken and silent messages that I was receiving challenged my previous experiences in Kuwait. I constantly struggled to synthesise the contesting messages. When I started a PhD in Education at Cambridge as a mature student I confronted contradictions that were even more stark. At Oxford, where I did my Master's in Higher Education, the challenges were also present, but masked by the intensity of the one-year course and the euphoria of leaving Gaza for the first time and travelling alone to study at a world-leading university.
Between courage and fear
I do not regret the challenges that I faced as they helped me to grow and know myself better, but they exhausted me as a student. I wondered often whether international universities were even aware of this. In my mind, it was so obvious. When a student comes from the besieged Gaza, they are moving across so many boundaries: from Eastern to Western traditions, from an emerging to a developed country, from a religious to a secular society and from a traditional to modern context. They are also moving from a collective and nationalistic society to a place of individualism and neoliberalism. The isolation and violent context of the Gaza Strip, which is predominantly Muslim and Palestinian, sharpens these differences.
Dealing with the conditions on the Gaza- Egyptian border had almost depleted my energy before I even started my studies at Cambridge. I arrived from a daily context of 6- 12 hour of power cuts, bombardment and gunfire to that of bonfire nights, May Balls, Halloween and Boar Feast dinners, with little or no effort on the part of the university to help me neutralise the trauma. As a Gazan student in Cambridge, I moved from siege and confinement to sudden mobility and exposure. Suddenly, I was in a new place, meeting new people and learning about new ideas that challenged the person I had been for the previous 35 years. A Pandora's box of ‘past experiences’ opened up for me alongside my PhD studies.
Of course, I had many wonderful experiences at Cambridge and I tried new things including kayaking. But, I also felt a fear that I had never experienced before. The new context of peace challenged many of the thoughts and automatic responses that I had internalised as a result of living in a conflict and traditional area. For example, in Gaza death was always present. In the UK, I was constantly reminded of how beautiful life was and how I was privileged to be alive and in Oxbridge to contribute to the world of knowledge. There was an emphasis on individual agency in shaping one’s life and future which was contradictory to the patriarchal and collective focus in Gaza. I was also aware of the impact of Gaza life on my everyday life. For example, I felt uncomfortable booking tickets or events in advance because in Gaza the situation was often politically unstable and early planning was so often disrupted.
In the early days, I found it strange to have electricity, water and internet for 24/7 a week. Initially, I also felt a strong resistance to mobility even though funding was available to go for international conferences - I was under siege from within, under siege without borders. The beautiful surroundings, open spaces, the UK transport network and the different people I have met and the other new things that I experienced have made me realise that I was living in a Gaza bubble. I was unconsciously replacing social control with self-control and censorship as a self-defence mechanism so that I could feel safe.
Out of place
One of my colleagues told me that he had never imagined that there were even students or universities in Gaza since he thought it was all rubble. I was for many the first Gazan they have ever seen in their lives and this made me feel like a different species. When I visited a museum in Amsterdam the receptionist could not find the word “Palestinian” within the nationality lists and so decided that I could not enter unless I agreed to wear a rubber band on my hand for security reasons. All this was much more than a cultural shock for me. It was a human shock that caused an identity crisis. I wished I could have two selves: one to reflect on all these changes and ideas and one to focus on the demanding work of the PhD thesis.
The whole experience has been like an earthquake and has shaken me to the core. The university, as an institution, has not always been aware of me as a student from a conflict area, although I have received a lot of support from individuals within it. Standard feedback forms with regard to equality and inclusion are not good enough because they take a long time to filter through the system and because students from conflict zones feel the pressure to adapt their experiences to the standard image of what international students are expected to be. There were wellbeing events available, but, as a private person, I did not consider them helpful. Once I tried to explain to a senior person that the experience of students from conflict areas deserves attention. She replied: “You are an adult! Go and establish a discussion group focused on conflict zones.” It was a good suggestion, but the way it was said assumed my ignorance and silenced me. I also did not have the time or energy to do it and wondered whether I was the one who was supposed to support an ancient university in its journey towards inclusion rather than the university working to support me as a student from a conflict area who was starting my doctoral journey.
Of course we should both work together, but surely the larger responsibility should be placed on the university. Looking back, the journey of contradictions whether from peace to conflict or from conflict to peace, is a worthwhile one. Despite the challenges, I achieved at the highest level at both universities. This experience has also increased my general life knowledge and shaped my personality in a very creative way. The struggle between fear and courage proved to be transformative.
It is ironic, however, that the qualities that I learnt at home and in Gaza were the same ones that helped me to succeed at Oxbridge.
*Dr Mona Jebril  recently completed her PhD in Education.