Gazan heads to Oxford University on unusual scholarship

Portrait of Rawan Yaghi, 19 year old Gazan student who is wearing head scarf. The scholarship offers Rawan Yaghi a life-changing opportunity

Rawan Yaghi is a bookish 19 year old who, appropriately for a student of literature, arrives to meet me in Gaza with a text tucked under her arm.

It is a well-thumbed copy of Catch 22, Joseph Heller's classic satirical novel on the absurdities of war; not an inappropriate choice for somebody who's spent her entire life amid one of the Middle East's most intractable conflicts.

But Rawan's life is about to take a different direction. Currently a student at Gaza's Islamic University, she has just won a scholarship to Oxford University to study linguistics and Italian.

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Most people think [Gaza] is like a war zone and that everyone here is really depressed and involved in politics. But it's not always about war. It's also about families, friends and love”

End Quote Rawan Yaghi Gazan student

She is looking forward to moving from the minarets of Gaza to the city of "dreaming spires".

"I'm very excited. I can't wait," she smiles. "It's going to be different but it's going to be fun."

Unusual scholarship

Few have made such a journey.

But what is even more unusual is that all the other students at Oxford's Jesus College will pay some of the cost of Rawan's studies.

As part of the recently established Jesus College Junior Members Scholarship most of the other students have each agreed to pay £3.90 ($5.90) per term towards Rawan's fees.

The scholarship was set up by Oxford graduate Emily Dreyfus after she realised that few Gazans had ever had the chance to study at one of Britain's most prestigious universities.

She says most other students at Jesus were happy to contribute.

Emily Dreyfus at her graduation ceremony Emily Dreyfus says most students are happy to contribute to Rawan's scholarship

"They voted for this from the outset. They recognise that this is a very small contribution to make which has a disproportionately positive benefit."

The student contributions will raise around £6,300 a year towards Rawan's living costs. This is only a fraction of the estimated £30,000 annual costs needed to complete the four-year course.

But the university has agreed to waive around 60% of the tuition fees.

The rest of the costs are being paid for by three charities: The Hani Qaddumi Scholarship Foundation, the AM Qattan Foundation and the Hoping Foundation which supports Palestinian refugees around the world.

Rawan still had to apply for and win the place against fierce competition, but she knows the other students at Jesus have given her a rare opportunity.

"I really appreciate that Emily believed in people here and she gave somebody like me a life changing chance," she says.

Rawan has only once before left the tiny Palestinian territory, when she went on a study trip to the United States.

Israel's blockade of Gaza and the ongoing conflict with Hamas which governs here make it difficult for Palestinians to leave through Israel.

In the past, Israel has refused permission for Palestinian students to leave Gaza in order to carry out studies abroad.

It is likely Rawan will leave Gaza through Egypt in order to travel to Oxford.

She is currently completing a degree in English literature studying, among other books, George Orwell's Animal Farm and William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

She says her favourite book is Mornings In Jenin by the Palestinian American writer Susan AbulHawa.

The novel follows the story of three generations of a Palestinian family who became refugees after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Rawan is also a fan of JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.

Students walk under the Bridge of Sighs along New College Lane on March 22, 2012 in Oxford, England. Rawan's second trip out of Gaza will be to the historic city of Oxford

"Her style of writing is very subtle. There are little things in her stories that grab your attention."

Education is highly valued in Gaza. There are no fewer than seven universities in the territory for a population of 1.7 million people.

But Rawan is expecting a different study experience at Oxford.

"The education system is completely different. I'm going to have my own tutors not like in Gaza where I am among hundreds of students who have the same teacher."

Cultural differences

She will also have to get used to mixed education. At the Islamic University, where she studies now, men and women are taught separately.

"I don't think it's going to be a problem. The culture there is obviously very different but I'm open to that."

Rawan also accepts that she is going to miss home.

"Of course I will be homesick. But I have to go through that and get used to it because I have something more important to achieve."

Emily Dreyfus expects the young Palestinian will be given a warm welcome.

Graduation ceremony of Palestinian engineering students at The Islamic University of Gaza on July 31, 2005. All of the student are women wearing Islamic head scarf. Some of them wear Niqab. Graduation day at Gaza's Islamic University: Rawan is expecting a very different cultural experience at Oxford

"I'm confident that she's going to have a wonderful time and I know that there are a lot of people at the college eager to meet her and to welcome her to their community."

And Rawan is looking forward to telling people about a different side of life in Gaza.

"Most people think it's like a war zone here and that everyone here is really depressed and involved in politics," she says.

"But it's not always about war. It's also about families, friends and love. It's not only about the conflict with Israel."

And despite the chance to broaden her horizons, she is adamant that once she has finished her four years in Oxford, she will return to Gaza.

"I still haven't thought about what I'll do after university but I'll definitely come back here. Although it may seem difficult to live here, it's still interesting and adventurous at times," she says with a wry smile.

"There is ugliness in Gaza but you can't leave it and turn your back on it."

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