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Dima Yaser and Tina Rafidi, Birzeit University, Palestine

In Palestine, higher education and international engagement are fraught with challenges, many related to restrictions on free movement. Dima Yaser and Tina Rafidi explain how departments across Birzeit University teaching subjects as different as architecture and languages are tackling these barriers.

The PIE: Can you start by introducing yourselves and the roles that you do?

"This is one of the things we see as the most important in education, to raise active citizens"

TR: My name’s Tina Rafidi and I am the director of the Palestine and Arabic Studies program and an English language lecturer at Birzeit University.

DY: And I’m Dima Yaser, I teach architecture at the Department of Architectural Engineering.

The PIE: So tell me about what internationalisation looks like at the university.

TR: We have different layers that we work within. First of all, we have a strong administration with young leaders, who are taking the initiative to make decisions related to policymaking. For example, we have changed the curriculum, specifically related to English language, and now we are widening and aligning all our ILOs [intended learning objectives] with the European framework CEFR, so all our students can have this kind of international language passport.

“We have changed the curriculum so all our students can have this international language passport”

The second good practice is the Palestine and Arabic Studies program. We are mapping this to become an international program and we have students from all over the world, from England, from Korea, from Japan. They come and they live in Ramallah, they live at the university. Despite the linguistic challenge, despite the cultural challenge, they learn a lot, they enjoy it, they take their credits with them, and they learn about our Palestinian students and Palestinian students learn about them.

This is a very important strategy because that kind of connection is not only a transfer of knowledge, but also a transfer of values between cultures and students. Our classroom at PAS is an entrance to the world, because our philosophy of teaching is based on experiential learning. So they experience the culture, they live among us, and we miss them when they leave us. This program is small but the impact is huge.

We believe it’s important to work inside the functions of the different parts of the university, but we believe internationalisation comes from within. The idea of moving from local to national to global – that kind of reasoning is very important to start to really focus on, because it deals with our needs. It is designed based on the need for our students to become globally competent students worldwide. 

The PIE: Do your students study abroad?

DY: We have short-term study abroad. We have two students going to study at Birmingham University as part of an Erasmus agreement, and two students from Birmingham will come to Birzeit. We also have students who go on exchanges – a couple of times we had graduate students who went to get feedback from other professors in Austria, in Germany, in Sweden. And we’ve taken the initiative ourselves to do excursions to other places, taking 15 students for a week or so to just get exposed, meet other students from other universities and so on.

The PIE: And how many international students do you have at the university?

“That kind of real interaction, the kind of social adaptability that takes place, is evident”

TR: Normally every year we have around 120 students. We have signed agreements with many universities and we work on making mobility real. They come, they interact, they live. I’ve gone on Erasmus three or four times, I’ve been interacting with universities, teaching English, talking about PAS. Professors and students are coming here, they’re learning Arabic. We also teach political science; they learn about the Palestine question. That kind of real interaction: the kind of social adaptability that takes place, the social awareness, is evident.

Despite how difficult it is for us to operate under the occupation, we’re moving. We’re moving through art, through science, through architecture – as long as there is movement, there is life.

The PIE: Tell me about the challenges of operating in Palestine as a university that’s trying to build up its international engagement.

TR: One problem is students are denied access to education. We have 522 roadblocks and students cannot even go to school. This is one of the main challenges that we face. Another one is the right of movement.

DY: Sometimes students are denied visas. And even the geography most of the time is a barrier, actually. There are barriers with mobility around Palestine with the checkpoints, and the whole dichotomy between places and the archipelagos that have been created with the separation wall. Even just to get from one place to another is a bit problematic.

The PIE: The challenges with visas – is that coming into Palestine or leaving?

“One of the main issues in Palestine is many internationals are denied access to come”

TR: Both. One of the main issues in Palestine is many internationals are denied access to come because the occupation doesn’t want them to see the narrative for themselves. And it’s been throughout different universities and now it’s becoming very much worse than before. But we still continue and that’s the challenge; internationalisation simply can be a challenge and can be a possibility.

Another important thing I would like to address is that education is a form of resistance: a form of resistance that is required to engender a society that has basic rights and freedoms, where everyone has the right to learn. Through education we’re trying to make all that different. We believe that resistance comes in many forms, and this is one of them.

The PIE: How do you respond to the restrictions on movement within Palestine and their impact on education?

DY: At Birzeit, we organised a marathon for the right of education that was more inclusive. It had international students participating from different disciplines and even VPs, administrative [staff], and students, people with disabilities, all came together. And they ran the marathon from Birzeit University to the town of Birzeit itself, and this is where Birzeit University tries to blur the boundaries – even mobility, we talk about constraints and obstacles and we see that we can overcome them together, hand in hand, with all the players.

The PIE: It seems you can’t talk about Palestine without talking about physical space. 

DY: Space is a big word – it could be full of constraints, whether physical or sometimes mental. Access to the city is a right to everybody, and sometimes it’s not there. Last week we had a hunger strike and we did not have access to the city. And this is a challenge.

“When we talk about space it’s all about solving spaces, solving mobility and transportation”

Even for us at the Department of Architecture, when we teach students about space and planning, we have all these barriers that we cannot overcome – whether that’s regionally, when we talk about Palestine, or when we talk about urban planning. When we talk about space it’s all about solving spaces, solving mobility and transportation – there’s a huge constraint on this.

We have some joint projects between our department and other departments around the world, where we bring students together from different backgrounds to find solutions that are innovative and creative and we’ve really succeeded in bringing some creative insights from within and without.

The PIE: Can you tell me about any of those international projects you’ve had in the department?

DY: We’ve had a collaboration on a project with the Austrian government for two years tackling planning in rural universities. We had Austrian students come to Birzeit University and they worked together on a city [in Palestine] that was a bit on the peripheries and a bit neglected. And then our students went to Austria and then worked on a city in Austria.

The PIE: Is community engagement a big focus for the university then?

DY: Community engagement and social responsibility is one of the things we see as the most important in education, to raise awareness and active citizens in the community they live in. And we really see this as an opportunity, because most of the projects that we try to expose our students to are real, hands-on projects, whether they’re tangential points or points at frontiers or very controversial social housing issues.

“Every city in Palestine has a frontier with an Israeli settlement or a checkpoint, so there’s this contested space”

One of the things about Palestine is every city has a frontier with an Israeli settlement or a checkpoint, so there’s this contested space that’s an in-between space. We try to touch on these contested spaces, what happens to those spaces?

One of the practical experiences of students was there’s this roundabout that connects to one of these settlements – there’s always something happening, whether it’s people passing to other places or demonstrations… so the municipality had already installed there something very monumental with the Palestinian flag on top. And it was a bit dark because it was concrete – and concrete is very reminiscent of the wall. What they did was re-infuse this structure with an addition that [students] designed – a very light structure to just draw attention to this space that we pass through every day. And yet, it’s also full of fear because sometimes you don’t know what to expect if something happens.

It was a very interesting experiment, because people actually started drawing on the concrete wall – it was a neglected space and suddenly it became more vibrant and it came to life.

TR: What you do as an educator is you infuse all the critical thinking strategies – so we are preparing leaders of tomorrow.

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