Harvard and Oxford hardly look like the place for students from war zones. Fees are high, admission is tough and elitism is evident from their enrollment numbers.
Children in conflict areas struggle to finish even primary school, what more to apply to the top ten universities in the world.
But Bridge Palestine, an education programme for Palestinian high school students, have succeeded to put several of its students into the world’s highest-ranking institutions, according to a feature by Al Jazeera.
“It is very important for us to say that here we are, we are Palestinians, we are under occupation, and because of that, we are unable to access good education,” said Tafeeda Jarbawi, director general of Taawon, the non-governmental organisation that runs the programme.
“Now, we’re doing this to prove that we can challenge this reality.”
The US$2 million project selects students from several regions in Palestine – Jerusalem, Westbank, Gaza – for a three-year programme where students attend after-school classes that prepare them to compete for an education abroad.
The current Palestinian school system has gaps that handicap their students when applying for universities abroad. According to Yahya Hijazi, an education researcher at Al Quds University, schools across historic Palestine tend not to have the capacity to prepare students for acceptance into universities abroad.
“The principal problem is that the educational system is very traditional. They do not have the resources and there is no one to light the spark of excellence and creativity within the students,” Hijazi said.
“All that is linked to the student’s personality, their ability to take decisions, to express themselves, to change, to lead, to engage in discussions and debates, to write well, to propose an idea or critique it – these things do not exist in our books, unfortunately,” he adds.
“The students who have a lot of potential do not have the opportunity to explore their skills and develop them.”
Jarbawi explained how Bridge Palestine fills this gap:
“We teach them how to write good essays, how to succeed in interviews, how to be good citizens, the basic skills of dialogue, how to be rationally and not emotionally driven, what types of questions they should ask, how to have an open mind and be open to diversity.”
The programme also includes training in English language (writing, reading, conversing, listening), lessons in critical thinking and scientific research.
Their website showed participants attending summer schools in the US, training for debate and science, as well as vocational guidance and pre-college counselling workshop.
The association’s goal is to secure acceptances. Funding is now up to the students to raise, though Jarbawi said the association’s board members try to help.
Nora Marzouqa, a 17-year-old Palestinian from Bethlehem, was one of the 400 from a pool of 3,350 applicants who passed the three stages of application – an aptitude test, group and one-on-one interviews, and tests on their ability to solve problems and challenge.
She had seen her relatives try to study abroad but failed either because of finances or that their Tawjihi (Palestinian matriculation exam) results aren’t recognised abroad.
“It just seemed impossible for me – I didn’t know what the process was or how to go about doing it.”
Participating in the programme as well as in international debate competitions in Singapore, Germany and Slovenia showed her that she deserves just as much as others to get into those world-class universities.
And on her 17th birthday, after completing the programme, Nora got her acceptance letter from Harvard, telling her she had won an 85 percent scholarship.
“It was a surreal feeling,” she says.
Fifty students from the programme have gotten their acceptance letters to other prestigious institutions like the University of Manchester, King’s College London and Stanford University. Another 60 candidates are waiting for theirs to arrive within the next few months.
Jarbawi has high hopes for these students and spoke about plans to transform the programme into a full-fledged academy.
“When the student graduates and becomes a scientist or an economist or even comes back [to Palestine] to work in politics and tries to solve social or political problems, then this investment is really the best investment for Palestine and for the Arab world,” said Jarbawi.
“I truly believe that if these people come back to Palestine, they will make a big difference. They will come back as leaders.”