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Letter from Birzeit, #1: Orientation

October 7, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters.


August 25 Birzeit-UniversityToday was orientation, which felt like a lesson in and of itself. There are about sixty students in the program, from all over the world (so far, I’ve met a lot of people from Germany and France), and today I met about half of them. I learned so much today that I almost don’t know where to begin, but perhaps the history of Birzeit University is the best place to start. BZU began as an elementary school in the old West Bank town of Birzeit, but in 1982 it became a full university. At that point, the Israeli government began to periodically shut it down or close the road between Ramallah and Birzeit, in effect shutting down the university and barring students from entering. In 1987, the school was closed for five years because of this, but students and teachers still met for lectures outside the closed university gates. BZU has six students from Gaza, four of whom have grants from the U.S. or a European country that allow them to study in the West Bank, and six other students are Arabs living in Israel. Six of each; that’s it. Twenty years ago, 40 percent of the university’s students were from Gaza, and 20 percent were Arabs living in Israel. Today, 20 percent of Birzeit’s students must cross the Qalandia checkpoint to get to school, which means their travel time could be anything from thirty minutes to almost three hours. Other things I learned at orientation today: 1) BZU can’t have international students, as Israel won’t grant student visas to people going to Palestine (if you choose to study in Israel, however, you can obtain a four-year-visa); 2) only two of Birzeit’s buildings were donated by Palestinians living in Palestine, while most of the others are from Palestinians living abroad; 3) as of today, eighty-seven Birzeit students are in administrative detention, which means the Israeli army arrested them for six months without charges or a lawyer (and these six months are renewable); 4) the IDF will often try to arrest students before finals so they have to repeat their studies and graduation is delayed; 5) flying checkpoints are when the IDF creates temporary checkpoints in order to check IDs and get the person they’re looking for; 6) the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis who have been killed in the conflict is 67:1. How many people can say that their professor once did time in prison? One of my professors was recently in an Israeli jail for at least eight years (as was his sister, and she had her teeth pulled out while there), and apparently it is extremely common for professors to be in this situation. I’m living in an apartment with two other girls (well, women; they’re 26 and 28), one from Germany and one from France. The first thing we did, before we even unpacked, was go downstairs to the store to buy cleaning supplies; we then scrubbed everything, as every surface and corner was covered in dust. We were warned that all utilities aside from electricity would be included in our rent, but to be careful of keeping the lights on for too long as electricity bills could be extremely expensive — sometimes as high as 1,000 shekels. Also, water is delivered to Palestinian homes only once a week, so make sure to take short showers and conserve. Our water comes on Sundays and is stored in tanks on the roof. All of that aside, Birzeit the town is beautiful and bustling, and tonight we got a tour of the main town as well as the old town, which is filled with buildings constructed with gorgeous white stone. Many of the homes are starting to crumble, as they are around 500 years old, so there are attempts to fund renovation projects. Fortunately, Birzeit is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, so families do not need to obtain permits from Israel in order to renovate or rebuild. Placement tests begin at 8:30 tomorrow morning and end at 12:30, and later in the evening we will go on a tour of Ramallah. I cannot emphasize enough how happy I am to be here, how relaxed I feel, how wonderful it is to hear so much Arabic floating around. Click here for all Maya’s Letters from Birzeit.