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Friday, 24th November 2017

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Exclusive interview: Palestinian student Malaka Shwaikh on her journey from Gaza to becoming the next Education Officer of Sheffield University SU

Student Broad Left is proud to present this exclusive interview with Malaka Shwaikh, a Palestinian student who arrived at Sheffield University in the autumn of 2013, having broken the siege on Gaza to reach her destination. Just a few months later, in March of this year Malaka stood to be the next Education Officer at the Students’ Union. And she won – with the greatest number of votes ever cast for a candidate in the history of Students’ Union elections at Sheffield. She begins her new job, representing over 24,000 students at Sheffield University in a couple of weeks time.


As the opening paragraph of Malaka’s manifesto hints to, her journey to become the next Education Officer of Sheffield University Students’ Union was one of struggle and determination:

Malaka

“My name is Malaka and I am a Masters student from Gaza City, Palestine, studying Global Politics and Law. I believe students’ unions can change lives. First-hand experience has taught me that student politicians working as a team can have a transformative impact. If the Students’ Union here at Sheffield didn’t lobby the University for a fee waiver, I would not be here.”

Interview with Malaka Shwaikh, Education Officer of Sheffield University Students’ Union 2014/15

Malaka, first of all we would like to express our huge congratulations to you on your election victory to become the next Education Officer of the University of Sheffield Students’ Union. The first ever Palestinian to achieve this at Sheffield!

As a Palestinian student growing up in Gaza, how did Israel’s siege on the Gaza strip impact upon your right to education?

The Israeli siege on Gaza affects all angles of life, specifically education. Talking more about personal experience, it was like a miracle I was allowed to travel after a humiliating experience that is indescribable. My friend Fida was about to lose her scholarship because Israel did not allow her to travel to the USA last year, claiming that she is not a humanitarian case. She made it after about three months of the start of the first semester. This year my friend Sarah was given permission from Israel to travel to make the visa interview in Jerusalem but later was refused permission to travel after she received her visa!

Palestine flag

The Israeli siege does not only ban students from travelling but it is not easy to get educational equipment including books. Even mail service is not available in Gaza so requesting any book online will not work. I still think of hundreds of students who are stuck in Gaza and cannot leave. Another friend has lost her scholarship at Canada’s Trent University as she couldn’t make it to Egypt for a visa interview. Many of my friends’ schools have started and Rafah has been opened for around 15 days in the last seven months.

In Gaza, life is full of uncertainty. There is nothing you can take for granted besides corruption, cruelty and potentially a life of lost opportunities. These fears are never more than two steps from one’s own shadow. The odds of obtaining an international scholarship are slim enough, never mind other circumstances that are well out of our control: obtaining a visa and finances within a short deadline, the journey through the infamous Rafah crossing, the political instability in Egypt, the blanket of curfews in the Sinai desert, the perpetual threats to a young woman’s safety, the cruelty and discrimination of the military and, finally, the flight out. Nothing is certain, and a lifetime of aiming for greatness can be shot down in the blink of an eye.

What led you to become a student a Sheffield University? Describe your journey.


It was a long story actually, but the main reasons are: I have been campaigning for education in Gaza for few years and I believe that the core of development and improvement for any society is centred around education so I want to get this knowledge to benefit my country and at the same time use the knowledge I have acquired while campaigning for education to be as much beneficial as possible for students here helping and supporting them to get the best experience they can while being a student. My experience in Sheffield has been really good overall and I really appreciate every moment I spend here and looking forward to be of help for the amazing students here!



What has been your experience of living and studying in Sheffield and what led you to stand for Education Officer, within just one year of being at the university?

My experience in Sheffield was really rich and unique; the least it could be said. I have made lots of friends, know much about different cultures and customs all around, and more importantly learn a lot in amazing modules in the Politics and Law school.

You can read more here – I have written 4 diaries of how amazing my experience in Sheffield was.

You received more votes than any other candidate has ever had in an election at Sheffield University SU! What was the campaign like and how did students respond to your message?

That is a difficult question. The fact is that I had not decided if I could go for election or not until few days before campaigning week. I had to travel to Europe for around 1 week to do a speaking tour. Apparently I missed my flight after I received my visa one day late and was about to cancel my whole tour to organise for the election, but my friend Sultana who helped me in organising the campaign told me that I should not lose this chance and I need to go and keep raising awareness. So the trip organisers booked another flight and I went to Italy and France, which were worthwhile trips actually.

Another challenge was with me as an international student going for a position like Education Officer which is usually only got by home students. I remember former President of Sheffield SU told me that I should not go for the Education Officer position, it is better if I can go for the Women’s Officer position for instance. But I replied that I am better in education-related positions than anything else in the SU I guess. It was not an easy decision; lots of people doubted it in the beginning and told me that it is quite difficult to get the position.

Also, I have spoken in around 45 educational workshops during my staying here which is also a reason that encourages me to go for this election. But it did not appear that easy to be honest; I have three other competitors; two of them are British and have been students for years and thought they knew much more students that I do. Another girl was Muslim from Pakistan and in her third year. The three candidates were really good; and I really think that the strongest competition was among us. What made this difference in votes I think is the two talks I did in Sheffield where hundreds of students attended and found out about me and the campaign about the right to education I have been part of.

Also, the help of amazing people around me and being the President of Palestine Society in which I know other societies members also helped. All these reasons and many others lead to this success. Alhamdoli Allah (thanks for God).

What are your plans as the incoming Education Officer and what are your hopes for the future?

I am planning to make use of every single minute of my training and my job to learn more about education then make use of this knowledge for the improvement of people all around. I also plan to further my studies. Many other things are now popped in mind.

And here I’m about to farewell a year filled with lots of ups and downs. A year that has been so long and hectic, it is when I started the course I was dreaming of the last five years. My Sheffield University, I couldn’t think of choosing a better place to study.

I gained the confidence I haven’t ever had during the first few days of my studies. Being tutored by a world-wide experienced and specialised staff in Global Politics and International Law, I am quite proud of the amount of analytical skills I learned. The friendly environment I am surrounded by opens my eyes to different cultures and norms. I enjoy sharing good times with friends from all over the globe. I also like the competitive learning environment at the University that makes it unique not only for me as a student but also in the world standards. I find my tutors willing to get the best out of each student by encouraging us to develop our knowledge and abilities so that we will be able to deal with diverse circumstances.

I now do believe that studying Global Politics and International Law is quite significant for this world and for the Palestinians specifically; the key is to use the International Conventions in the right way and to choose a suitable political system.

The more days I spend in Sheffield, the more people I meet and the more knowledge I gain. Being elected as President of the Palestine Society and having a radio show about life in Palestine, I feel blessed for being able to raise my voice very freely and let others know about my country.

While recording my radio show at the university radio station Forge, the interviewer James Kenny asked: Malaka, I noticed that you are quite optimistic despite the unbearable situation you’ve come through, why?

Me: Simply being pessimistic is not a solution. It only worsens the situation. As a Palestinian, I try to make use of every positive bit of my life and make it a strong starting point for the kind of resistance I believe in. Participating or acting with sufficient power to influence and cause a change – even though it might be difficult- can’t come unless I am optimistic and “open” for life.

After finishing my tour talks around the UK at the beginning of this year, I noticed wide support and tireless efforts from many pro-Palestinian activists to educate themselves and people around them about Palestine. This enthusiasm encourages me to do my best in all my talks.
One time, I was walking somewhere in Sheffield before I was stopped by three Chinese girls. “Is she the lecturer?” one of them asked the other two girls. I wondered if I am a lecturer somewhere and I just do not know.

“Yes! She is. How are you Malaka?” My heart starts beating fast for no reason and I said, “Sorry, I am not a lecturer, which lecture do you refer to?” “The one in the Sheffield Student Union Auditorium about Palestine.” Then one of them said, “Some of my friends came and they were moved by your words, feelings and how you present the story of Palestine!” The second student said a similar thing and the third said, “I used to think of Palestine completely different from what I saw in your presentation. Now, I know about Samer Issawi and the border problem which I hope is solved. I now know the truth and will tell all my friends and family about it.”

Being of the generation of children born during the first Intifada, in the city of Yaffa, now a part of present day Israel and having lost a number of educational programs in different places around the world because of the siege on Gaza, where for 7 years Israel has completely closed Gaza. Students are not allowed to travel or other teachers from all over the world are not allowed to come to Gaza for educational training for instance, but in very rare cases.

Back to my background and how it is one of the reasons why I decided to go for election: I have a sharp recollection of the stories my Grandmother used to tell me about our homeland: the scent of the orange trees blowing in the wind. There was nothing quite as provoking as the image of the trees standing tall, free. Growing up as a refugee in Gaza, I burnt these images into my mind, always telling my Grandmother that I wanted to see the land. She, like the resilience of the trees, reminded me to be strong, tenacious, and never submit to powerlessness, especially in the face of injustice.

My grandma died. God bless her soul. Yet she is still alive within us, within her children and grandchildren.

Throughout my childhood I have witnessed destruction, ruins, and the desecration of human rights. I watched my family and friends suffer from phosphorous bombs that were thrown on our region. What I experienced is indescribable. Sometimes I have sleepless nights.

I grew up in Al-Shijaeyah, Eastern Gaza; the closest area to the Israeli borders. Like the rest of Gaza we suffer from daily power-cuts and shortages of clean water. Also, given its proximity to the Israeli border, it is likely to be Israel’s first target during any invasion or escalation. My upbringing in Gaza, whilst wholesome and spiritual, two qualities I consider irreplaceable and perhaps specific to Palestine, was in sharp contrast to my experience so far of living in the UK, all of which will be elaborated upon in the following paragraphs.

When I first saw Sheffield, I was at the peak of happiness given the numerous narrow escapes I had crossing the Rafah border into Egypt. Travelling alone for the first time was quite difficult; I felt traumatized after my humiliated journey. I lost the ability to communicate properly and my sleep was infested with recurring dreams of the malicious policemen and soldiers in the Sinai dessert and Cairo who seemed hell bent on stopping every car bearing a Palestinian passenger. The experience in totality was de-humanizing. Of course, with time, these feelings subsided after meeting more people from Sheffield who each day have helped me create better memories.

The differences between Sheffield and Gaza were immediately apparent. The degree of peace and calm is so alien to me it was initially unnerving. Every day in Gaza is unpredictable in comparison; before I could not imagine spending a day without hearing the sound of F16 or Apache jets hovering in the skies, infiltrating our daily life. It seems miraculous to behold a city where the electricity supply is continuous and clean water is freely available. I can travel freely where and whenever I want. The freedom here is inconceivable to someone who has spent their entire life in Gaza. The contrast is peculiar, unnerving and yet exhilarating.

Gaza is still inculcated in different aspects of my life: whenever I skype with my family, there is either a power cut or weak net connection and I can hardly hear their voices or see their faces. But this is better than nothing; life teaches me that there is always a bright side.

One of the incidents I have come through that is still infused in mind is when Ally Buckle, the current President of Sheffield University Student Union, messaged me when I was in Gaza asking if I could participate in opening a new building in Sheffield. “If I am in Sheffield, I will have no problem in that. But I don’t know when I will be out of Gaza big prison!” hesitantly I replied.

And it’s October 24th and I am in Sheffield. I was so excited to join Mr. Paul Bloomfield MP for Sheffield Central and the student James Kenny opening the new Student Union building. The moment Mr. Bloomfield said, “We are very pleased here to welcome Malaka from Gaza who will join me opening the new building. This is not only wonderful but quite important to have her sharing us this moment!”

This is an idea that is each day growing in my mind and relates directly back to the millions of Palestinians who each have the right not only for their physical freedom, but for the spiritual freedom to discover and pursue his/her own desires and dreams. This is ultimately what I am striving towards.

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