Words do not come easy for Abdallah Abu Ayyash (21) when asked how he and his Palestinian family are doing. “Since they do not live in Gaza but in the West Bank and are still alive, the most logical answer would seem to be they’re doing well. But I can’t bring myself to say that. The Palestinians being killed in Gaza every day are my family, too.”

Paradox

Immediately after the end of his lecture Topics in Israel studies: from settlement to state building, Abdallah rushed to Rotterdam. Pursuing Middle Eastern studies in Leiden and Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam, he’s used to commuting between the two cities. He’s just given a presentation in Leiden. What it was about? “Labor Zionism, a fusion between socialism and Zionism.”

Abdallah Abu Ayyash_ 080624_Tyna Le
Abdallah Abu Ayyash. Image credit: Tyna Le

Abdallah is the child of a Palestinian father born in Kuwait and a Dutch mother from Delft. This makes him ‘half-Palestinian’. He is quick to add: ‘That doesn’t detract at all from my connection with Palestine.’

His having an academic as well as a personal connection with Palestine is evident both from the subject of his thesis (‘the historical development of Palestinian identity’) and from the way he speaks. He uses terms such as ‘diaspora’ and ‘national identity formation’ to describe the existential struggle of the Palestinian people. He carefully considers the paradoxical link he sees between oppression on the one hand and the strength of his people on the other: “What makes the Palestinian identity unique is the decades-long struggle for the right to self-determination. The fact that this recognition keeps being thwarted only strengthens our resolve and hope.”

Offensive remarks

26-year-old physician-researcher Yara recognises this. ‘The genocide I’ve witnessed in the past six months, and especially the rest of the world looking the other way, have strongly reinforced my Palestinian identity.’

Sitting in her living room, she talks about her family history going back to 1948: “After my grandmother and her family were driven out of Hebron by Israeli soldiers, they fled to Gaza during the Nakba. When it became too unsafe there too, they fled further to Kuwait on foot.” Yara’s mother was born in Kuwait and met Yara’s Iraqi father while studying in Yemen.

Yara_080624_Tyna-Le
Yara. Image credit: Tyna Le

Coloured tiles from Egypt, Kuwait and Turkey hang on the living room wall, a beige Iranian floral carpet adorns the floor and an Iranian clock quietly ticks away the seconds. For a long time, Yara’s family history was not something she spoke about openly. “In the past, I only mentioned my Iraqi origin. The only ones who knew about my Palestinian background were my immediate friends.” Other than that, she hardly spoke about it, afraid of hurtful comments. “It’s happened to me that someone said: ‘Oh, Palestinian? Don’t you mean Israeli?’ or, even worse, that there’s an awkward silence.’ She explains how Palestinian identity, ‘at least in the West’, has been politicised, and how heavily this weighs on her and other Palestinians.

But Yara has discarded her timidity. “I no longer want to hide half of who I am for fear of others. Talking about it feels to me like the least I can do to keep the story of myself and my family alive.”

Keeping stories alive

Syreen-_-080624_Tyna-Le
Syreen. Image credit: Tyna Le

Syreen, a 22-year-old medical student, is also driven by the desire to keep her family story alive. In a few days, she will visit her Palestinian grandmother in the United Arab Emirates, for which she is already busy packing.

Syreen was born in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and fled to the Netherlands at the age of 14, so she knows what it’s like to live a life full of uncertainties. Even so, she’s not one to just give up. ‘When I arrived in the Netherlands, I immediately wanted to learn all kinds of things. When I was told it would be several weeks before I could go to school, I began practising by using Duolingo.’ Soon afterwards, Syreen progressed to language school, then to university preparatory education (vwo), and then to a Medicine course in order to fulfil her dream of becoming a doctor.

The upcoming trip to her grandmother symbolises Syreen’s desire to record her family history. “Us grandchildren never tired of asking my grandmother about her childhood in Palestine. I now want to immortalise those stories in film.”

Palestinian thobe

In his surroundings, Abdallah sees what the embodiment of Palestinian roots can look like. While his sisters run a boutique selling traditionally embroidered Palestinian dresses (‘Wear a thobe, share the story’) and his brother sells T-shirts with Palestinian prints, Abdallah expresses his Palestinian identity in a different way. “For me, the embodiment of my Palestinian heritage mainly involves learning more about the history of Palestine and our historical struggle for self-determination. By specialising in this academically, I hope to be able to make a lasting contribution to the Palestinian cause in the future. Just how, I don’t know yet. But our story has to stay alive, no matter what.”

Abdallah was one of the three Palestinian students with whom Rector Annelien Bredenoord had a conversation in December 2023. “It was a pleasant conversation, I felt heard and was able to express my concerns.”Despite regretting that the university is not taking a position, he appreciates the opportunity given to students to make themselves heard. ‘Rallies to reflect on the suffering are allowed; the Palestinian story is not a taboo here on campus.”

Kept out of sight

According to Syreen, it’s a completely different story at the Faculty of Medicine. “I notice very little of the freedom to have this conversation here. In fact, I distinctly feel I’m supposed to keep my suffering out of sight and that it’s not welcome.”

She recounts a recent situation where two student associations in her faculty wanted to organise an academic lecture on medical care in Gaza. “I was especially looking forward to hearing the story of a doctor who worked in Gaza for many years.” When the associations requested a room for the lecture, they weren’t granted one. After much back-and-forth the lecture was given the green light, but the Erasmus MC executive set additional conditions. “A sentence had to be removed from the flyer, otherwise the event was not allowed to take place.’ What was that sentence? ‘A comprehensive approach to the crisis in Gaza.”

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Mohammed Shamallakh. Image credit: Tyna Le

Medical student Mohammed Shamallakh (27) is also very indignant about this: ‘I feel alienated from my own university. If Gaza cannot be mentioned, that’s like denying my identity.’ For him, Gaza is where he was born 27 years ago. He spent the first seventeen years of his life there, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City. He has fond memories of the family farm in the Tel al-Hawa district. ‘As a child, my favourite spot was on the roof of the little shed where we kept wheelbarrows and hoes. I’d stand on that roof, my arms stretched out to the starry sky, with the world at my feet.’

Muddy boots

With a wistful gleam in his eyes, Mohammed recalls his initially carefree childhood in Gaza from his student room in Roelofarendsveen. ‘If you were hungry, you’d pick some fruit from the garden or bake an egg freshly laid by the hens.’ But back then, too, the occupation was palpable. Walking outside in the evening was impossible. Anyone who did so risked being shot by the soldiers posted in one of the many watchtowers guarding the settlements. Also, roadside checkpoints were sometimes suddenly closed. Mohammed and his siblings would then have to wait until it was safe again before going to school. Yet Mohammed’s parents managed quite well to keep the misery out of sight for their children. However, an incident in 2004 put a rough end to this.

One cold day as Mohammed returned from school, he found his father in the garden, busy lighting a fire. Mohammed helped carry glowing coals inside. As the family sat around the coals warming, the ground suddenly started shaking violently. ‘My mother was convinced the sound came from approaching tanks. As my father tried to reassure her, we heard voices nearing.’ Soon, soldiers were storming into the house and ransacking it. ‘A very specific image I can’t get out of my head is their muddy boots stomping across our beautiful carpet.’ To this day, the reason for the raid is not clear to Mohammed and his family.

Cardiology examination

Mohammed has stopped counting the number of family members he lost during his first year studying medicine. He finds it difficult to concentrate on his studies. ‘I have a very hard time concentrating on my studies. It feels very strange to live here in the Netherlands as if everything’s fine.’ He also failed to concentrate on the questions during a recent cardiology examination.  The fact that he may not be allowed to continue the programme if he fails his BSA, causes him a lot of stress. ‘I’m really trying my hardest, but a recent cardiology examination didn’t go well, either. How can I go on living my life here while my family and my sister over there are suffering?’

Through fundraising, Mohammed is trying to support Palestinian students abroad now that their families in Gaza can no longer help them. Making himself useful to others is his way of coping with the suffering. He also likes to go to the mosque for support. ‘In the first week of violence in Gaza, fifteen of my dear family members were killed. When I walked into the prayer room, other mosque-goers came up to me crying. It’s not just them comforting me: we comfort each other. They feel the pain like I feel it, as if we are one body.’

Syreen and Yara do not wish to be identified by their last names, as they fear this could cause problems with Israeli customs if they want to visit their relatives in Palestine in the future.

2024-05-29 EUR Student of the Year (Arie Kers) (277)

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