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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Mona Jebril, Gates Cambridge Scholar

Dr Mona Jebril did her PhD in Education at the University of Cambridge where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar. A teacher and lecturer before she started her PhD, she has been studying the impact of conflict on higher education in Gaza. She will be speaking at the discussion War in the Middle East: Living Through Extremes on 16th October.


Question: How long were you teaching in Gaza?

Mona Jebril: I taught for more than 11 years in Gaza: For more than six years, I taught at state schools and I also acted as a trainer of new teachers at one of the local districts of the Directorate of Education in Gaza. After completing my master’s in higher education at Oxford, I changed my career to teaching at two of Gaza’s universities, one private and one public.


Q: How do you think living under siege affected your own teaching practice?

MJ: I was not able to travel to participate in international seminars or conferences. Even if the border was open, I could not choose to go because of the risk of being locked outside for a prolonged period with no ability to return to work and I could not afford the consequences of staying outside for longer. There were also no other students or academics from outside coming to visit Gaza’s universities. So students relied heavily on what I could teach them in the classroom. However, due to the siege, there was also a severe lack of library resources in Gaza. Most of the books available on education were Egyptian and were out of date. There was almost no journal subscriptions for students to use. This affected what curricula I could choose for students especially since, in the Faculty of Education, the majority of students were not fluent in English.

This context was difficult to teach in. It was difficult because it was intellectually boring, and practically impossible. The siege also delayed construction at schools and universities in Gaza and affected the flow of funding to universities. This resulted in overcrowded classes, with increased student-teacher ratio. For example, in one public university, I used to teach 1,000 students each semester. The lack of funding made universities depend heavily on students’ tuition fees and this placed more pressure on me as a lecturer. Correcting so many assignments and exams in a few weeks, under conditions of daily power cuts, was very stressful. This also negatively affected the quality of teaching I could offer to my students.


Q: What were some of the practical challenges?

MJ: Here are some examples: to use Powerpoint presentations at one of the public universities, I had to buy LCD technology out of my own salary as it was not available at the Faculty of Education. I also had to use my own laptop. I used to carry both every day with me from home and then come in early to set up or maybe take 10 minutes from the lecture to connect it and get it ready. However, sometimes as I was explaining the PowerPoint presentation, a power cut would occur and destroy all lesson plans for the day. The university would usually have a power generator, but, as fuel is limited, it is not always used.

Power cuts of 6-12 hours a day affected my ability to plan and deliver academic activities in a timely manner, as well as affecting students trying to complete their assignments and study for exams.

My teaching was so often interrupted because of unexpected gunfire or bombardment. It was also interrupted by loud microphones and factional celebrations on and around campus.

Students were demotivated because of their own family context. Some had to do exhausting paid work during the day and skip classes. Even when I was teaching at schools, some of the children used to do paid work at the expense of their studies to support their other siblings. Other students lost their loved ones or had their homes destroyed in the war. All this affected their ability to focus on their studies, and teachers’ ability to implement teaching-learning activities.


Q: According to your research, what impact do restrictions on movement have on higher education and wider economic development?

MJ: The data showed that the siege has controlled people’s imaginations regarding when and where they could study for higher education. Also, the general atmosphere of siege and unemployment has had a frustrating impact on my students and their families and encouraged them to adopt an instrumentalist approach towards education. Hence, students focus on marks as a way of getting employment and social approval rather than on intellectual inquiry or contributing to world knowledge and economic innovation.

Viewing themselves as an “other” who is isolated from the world, issues such as climate change or space innovation seem beyond their scope of interest. The siege also limited cultural and academic exchange in Gaza and encouraged more traditional ways of thinking and acting. All these have undermined creativity and dialogue not only in the classroom, but also in the educational institution and wider society. The siege has also affected schools’ and universities’ abilities to build new buildings and has resulted in a serious lack in books and technological resources. The frequent lack of fuel as it has become expensive or unavailable as a result of tightened restrictions on movement have made it harder to move around and have limited students’ access to local transport, causing them to miss or be late for classes.


Q: How has the politics of the situation in Gaza affected academia?

MJ: The political situation in Gaza is difficult and unpredictable. This is reflected in several ways at Gaza’s universities, including the occasional bombardment of university campuses or buildings nearby which has caused the destruction of facilities and disrupted academic activities.

The factional atmosphere in Gaza also affects academia. For example, students spoke to me about their annoyance about factional celebrations and posters on campus. Factionalism also affects the fair distribution of grants and scholarships and impartial recruitment at Gaza’s universities.

In the context of occupation, the majority of my research participants said that higher education reform was not a priority for them in terms of something they would protest about. This is because they felt they should focus on other issues such as Palestinian unity, the siege, Israeli settlements and the protection of Al Aqsa mosque.

The political situation in Gaza has had a critical impact as it has created violence and a lack of trust among Palestinians themselves. Factionalism has also affected freedom of speech and productive dialogue in the classroom and at the university.


Q: How can some of the damaging effects of living in a state of siege be mitigated in the absence of any political solution?

MJ: This is a difficult question because political stability and freedom of movement are key to improving life and education in the Gaza Strip. In the meantime, the internet could help to connect young people and academics and give them opportunities to learn, exchange ideas and find employment worldwide, although the internet is so often interrupted by power cuts or not available for families from poor backgrounds.

Educational interventions, for example, through international projects, to support the training of teachers or build up libraries and provide material and equipment are necessary. Nonetheless, in order for such interventions to succeed, they should be based on Palestinian priorities and experience rather than motivated by political agendas and Western frameworks of understanding.


Q: What were some of the practical difficulties you faced doing your research due to the conflict in Gaza?

MJ: Initially, I wanted to do my research through conducting fieldwork in Gaza. Due to the siege, I could not go to Gaza in person. This limited my methodological choices. For example, I excluded focus groups and questionnaires for quality reasons. I ended up collecting data through Skype. However, this was also not easy. Because of the power cuts, I had to set several provisional times with my participants for interviews. Often, I also had to switch from Skype to telephone or mobile if the connection was interrupted.

From another perspective, access difficulties to the Gaza Strip have made this area grossly under-researched, especially with regard to higher education. The severe lack of literature on this topic was challenging and required me to conduct my study in an interdisciplinary way. For example, I would read about politics and economics to find educational information and about school education for insights into the higher education experience.

I also had to give due respect to risk and assessment issues and be sensitive to my participants’ needs and the political situation in Gaza.  The study was conducted at a time of great turbulence in Gaza (two Israeli wars in 2012 and 2014) and the Arab world (a coup in Egypt that ousted president Morsi from office) and this  impacted my research.


Q: How has it affected your own ability to study outside Gaza?

MJ: At first, I found it confusing to switch from a context of conflict to Cambridge. Crossing the border depleted my energy even before I started my studies. I was had nightmares and confused the sound of fireworks with gunfire and the sound of planes with those of Israeli jet fighters. I also seem to have internalised the borders in place in Gaza so that I felt reluctant to travel outside Cambridge for conferences, even though funding was available.

Two wars occurred during my PhD study in Cambridge, in 2012 and 2014. My neighbours’ house was bombarded and several people died, one of whom was a dressmaker who once made me a dress that was in my cupboard in Cambridge. All this had a psychological impact on me and it was a struggle trying to keep to deadlines.

I felt frustrated that, although I was a lecturer at one of Gaza’s universities and an Oxford graduate who was working very hard in Gaza, due to the siege, I was lagging behind in terms of research, publications and competitiveness in the UK labour market.  

Since 2012, I have not been able to visit home, not even for a short vacation. During this time, I have suffered two family bereavements, and my father was very ill. My father died last year in Gaza. Being unable to give support to my loved ones or receive it at this difficult time was challenging.


Q: Can UK universities do more to help students coming from conflict situations?

MJ: Yes, I believe that at this time of increased conflict, it is important that UK universities research the experience and needs of students from conflict-affected areas and how they can support them best. These students not only encounter difficulties at home as they try to gain an opportunity to study in the UK, but also once here they endure the pressure of adapting to a new system and pretending that they are ‘normal’ international students.

In order to integrate students from conflict-affected areas and maximise their contribution to their universities, their circumstances should be acknowledged from the the point of application onwards. What usually happens is that these students hope to find margins of flexibility within the university system. So often, their inclusion is perceived as an act of benevolence and an an exception, pending approval of university administrators, rather than as a right.

For students who come from conflict-affected areas, the opportunity to study in UK higher education, and especially at elite universities, is not only a chance to improve their knowledge and career prospects, but also an opportunity for a new life that is both empowered and burdened by a sense of responsibility to give back to their communities. UK universities have a moral obligation to support these students.