In Israeli-occupied Gaza, students in higher education face unusual difficulties, possibly unlike those faced by students anywhere else in the world. Severely isolated within Israeli and Egyptian borders, the students endure the privations of an economic blockade, bureaucratic restrictions on ordinary life and the destructive effects of Israeli military action.
Mona Jebril, born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, transmuted her own experience of living, studying and teaching in Gaza into a doctoral dissertation: a sociological study of higher education in Gaza. It describes how students of higher education function during chronic conflict, and offers innovative and inspiring practical solutions to some of the problems that Gaza’s higher education institutions face.
Jebril now occupies a ground-floor office, with its own tiny courtyard and tree, in an old building in the center of Cambridge that belongs to the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, the university where she was awarded her Ph.D. in 2017. She works here as a member of a project called R4HC-MENA, to develop research and policy on health care in areas affected by conflict.
Diane Reay, emeritus professor of the sociology of education at the University of Cambridge, who supervised Jebril‘s doctoral dissertation, said that her former student’s work “revealed something which had not been revealed before, namely the hidden injuries of having to live in a conflict area. And she writes about that in a very sensitive, nuanced way.”
A Passion for Palestinian Education
Jebril continues to write and speak publicly about higher education in Gaza, in a way that combines her own personal experience with acute and compassionate sociological observation. She calls her approach “South-South,” meaning the view of a writer from the global South looking, with her own perspective, at an institution in the global South—in contrast to the historic tendency of the global South to be described by writers from the West. (See a related article, “For Gaza’s Besieged Universities, Reform Is Low on the Agenda.”)
She does this in an exuberantly creative way. Her personal website, At the Crossroad, offers all her academic writing, her non-academic writing, YouTube videos and paintings. She is also an accomplished poet, said Reay.
Jebril’s story began in August 1990, when her family left their home in Kuwait to visit Mona’s mother’s family in Gaza, intending to stay for one month. At 13 years old, Mona was the second-oldest of six children—three girls and three boys. The day after they arrived in Gaza, she says, “Kuwait was invaded by the Iraqi army.”
The invasion affected the subsequent course of her life. Her parents decided that, given the uncertainty of the situation in Kuwait, Mona and her brothers and sisters should remain in Gaza and go to school there, in the care of their maternal uncle.
“From then,” Jebril wrote, “I became a permanent resident of Gaza.”
[Subscribe to our free biweekly newsletter and get articles like this in your in-box.]
Years later, as a young woman in Gaza, she faced social pressure to become a teacher, a traditional occupation for women. “Everyone was advising me that it’s better for you to become a teacher, because then when you get married you can combine the two things”—work and caring for family and children. “But I didn’t want to be a teacher,” Jebril said.
She became a teacher anyway, in the absence of any other opportunity in Gaza. “I became a teacher in a disadvantaged area,” she said. “I started to sympathize with the girls I was teaching and to like them, and this motivated me to become a better teacher. Three years later, I was nominated as a trainer of novice teachers.”
The experience gave her insights into the problems of education in Gaza, beyond the obvious ones caused by the Israeli occupation. Classes were too big; parents could not or would not keep track of their children’s homework; children sometimes had daunting family responsibilities such as looking after younger siblings while still in primary school themselves. But also, teachers were engaging in behaviors, such as shouting at children or hitting them, that they knew was counterproductive, yet did not know how to change. To find solutions to this problem, Jebril said, “I started to have thoughts about studying education” at post-graduate level.
She applied for scholarships, and received an offer from the University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom. There she completed a one-year master’s degree in higher education. She returned to Gaza and worked as a lecturer in English and as a teaching fellow in education at al-Azhar University before being admitted as a candidate for a doctoral degree in education at the University of Cambridge.
In her doctoral dissertation, Jebril wrote that there are two kinds of restrictions that affect young people in Gaza as they struggle to get an education. There are the visible restrictions, such as war, military occupation and the symptoms of a damaged economy such as power cuts that make it impossible to study at night or to use the Internet. But there are also invisible restrictions. The invisible restrictions result from the visible restrictions, but are harder to identify, since they are lodged in the mind of the individual: despair, helplessness, alienation, self-suppression.
In response to these conditions, Jebril presents a palette of practical solutions. Higher-education programs in Gaza, she writes, could be revised to focus on Palestinian experiences and needs, dropping the Egyptian approach traditionally used in Gaza in favor of one that looks outward and internationally.
Higher-education institutions could not only equip young people with the means of making their voices heard in society, she says, but also with psychological support, especially for those traumatized by conflict.
Technological infrastructure could be developed. For example, for the Ignite program at Cambridge’s Judge Business School, Jebril developed the idea of an online employment agency for young people in Gaza.
“I would hope that she could go back and have a leadership role in one of the universities in Gaza, because she’s not just an academic: she’s an incredibly talented businesswoman with great entrepreneurial skills, which is just what Gaza needs,” said Reay.