Education as a form of resistance: Interview with Malaka Mohammed

Activist and postgrad Malaka Mohammed discusses leaving Gaza, politicising student unions, and the growing relevance of BDS


Stable electricity, clean water, reliable wifi connection, a roof over your head. These are things that are taken for granted in the West, but that shocked Malaka Mohammed as she settled in England after leaving her home of Shijaia, Eastern Gaza, in 2013. “When you get outside of Gaza you start to see things that you don’t see as normal, when you have 24 hour electricity 7 days a week, you start to think that you’re in heaven,” Malaka explained. “We take so much for granted here, like having family around and being able to visit them whenever you want. I have not seen my family in 4 years,”

Malaka is a 26 year old PhD student in University of Exeter, where she studies under the prominent writer and activist Ilan Pappe. Since her arrival in England in 2013, she has held the position of Education Officer for Sheffield University Student Union and has worked as a blogger for Huffington Post. She spoke to Trinity News before beginning her speaking tour of Ireland.

A dangerous journey

“The first thing I saw was the Sinai desert and I was really excited to see it. It was just sand, but I started taking pictures and I couldn’t move my eyes away from the window because it was something so new to me”

There has been increasing interest in visiting the West Bank among pro-Palestinian activists in the past decade, with residents making use of social media to increase awareness abroad of the specificities of life there. Malaka regularly updates her Twitter account with news of bombings that she receives from her relatives. Malaka’s parents and siblings remain in Gaza, despite their family home being razed to the ground in 2014. Even still, Malaka does not see herself returning to Gaza in the near future, even for a short visit.

“If you are from Gaza it is almost impossible to go (back). In Gaza there are two borders, an Israeli and an Egyptian border. Hardly anyone can get passed them. If you are an activist and you have spoken against what’s happening, doing what’s right for your people there, you can’t get in,” She went on to explain the difficulties she faced at these checkpoints when first leaving home, with a stranger driving her and two others over the Egyptian border. “You have to travel on road, and the first thing you see on the road is the Sinai Desert which is one of the most dangerous places it the world because it has some ISIS combatants now. It was one of the most dangerous things that I have ever done in my life,”

“It was indescribable. In 2013 the situation in Egypt then was not as it is today, it (the Arab Spring Protests in 2011) was still a big political event. We were stopped at every checkpoint. When the military officer asked the driver, ‘Who is with you?’ he would say, ‘We have foreigners.’” And it was true, Malaka was travelling with a Canadian citizen and an Italian citizen. She let out a small laugh and shook her head, possibly at her naivety, she says, in thinking that their having international passports would be of benefit to her. Wearing her headscarf in the back of the car, she stood out from the other passengers. This was enough to have an officer look at her personally and ask ‘Where are you from?’. There was little she could do in that moment but say she was from Gaza.

“I have tens of people that I know and that I grew up together with and they lost their lives. I remember I was in London when that happened and I was checking the internet and I saw a picture of my cousins running in the street. That was the first thing I saw in the morning and it drove me crazy that I didn’t know what happened to my family or why my cousins were running, it was a horrible day until I managed to call my mother. When there is war in Gaza it is very hard to contact your family because usually the electricity is cut, the internet connection is cut. I still remember when I first talked to my dad, and I was crying because I couldn’t believe that they were alive. My father was like ‘Malaka why are you crying?’ and ‘If you don’t stop crying I’m not going to speak to you’. Imagine the resilience they have, despite everything he still wanted to calm me down as his daughter.”

Help from students’ unions

“Gaza is a more conservative society, the language is different, the accent – the Yorkshire accent was the first accent I heard and I was just ‘What is this? What are you speaking about?’”

As a refugee and a student, Malaka understands the complexity and the urgency of integrating into, not only a new city, but a whole new society.  “For me, there was so many cultural shocks when I came here. Gaza is a more conservative society, the language is different, the accent – the Yorkshire accent was the first accent I heard and I was just ‘What is this? What are you speaking about?’” She laughed, looking over her shoulder in case there was someone who might have taken her comment to heart. Everyday activities, such as going out and ordering food, were a struggle for her in the beginning, as it is not an experience afforded to the residents of the Occupied Territories. However, her unique life experiences drove her to integrate in the first place. “As someone from Palestine I have a big responsibility I feel, in telling others around me what was happening so it’s very important to you the type of language you use, how you communicate with people.”

Five months after entering the country, Malaka was elected Educational Officer of Sheffield Student’s Union in 2014, achieving the highest number of votes for any candidate in the student union’s history. The University of Sheffield has held the title of ‘#1 Students’ Union in the UK’ since 2009 in the Times Higher Education reports. Malaka believes this success is due to the union’s efforts to engage with all students.

“One of the things that we did in Sheffield was to bridge the gap between Gaza culture and British culture, so there is a virtual cultural exchange programme where students in Gaza and Britain from different backgrounds have Skype chats so when they travel they know the differences.”

“And what also works for Sheffield is that it is not even officers representing students, but a sort of friendship. I was heading the Palestine Society and some of the officers would come to our meetings. That is another thing that’s really nice about Sheffield is the city itself, and there is a strong relationship between them (the student union) and the city. If there is an event in the city and it’s relevant to one of the societies they would invite the society to it.”

“A student union sabbatical position depends on what you can make out of it, because it has lots of power but it depends on what you do as a representative. You would have a president who has done loads but you would have another who has done much less,” She stressed the importance of engagement with the sabbatical officers and telling them what you want. When she moved to the University of Exeter, she noticed that there was no central multi-faith room in the university that was open during the day for prayers. She brought the issue to a sabbatical officer there and they have since agreed to set one up in the forum.  

Understanding BDS

“BDS is based on international human rights law and international resolutions”

Another project in student union politics that Malaka has focused on is building a mass, student-led BDS campaign. BDS is a grassroots Palestinian movement that began in 2005 and comprises of three actions – boycotting, divesting and sanctioning. Malaka explained the first two in detail, as she felt that these raised the most questions, despite being the easiest to achieve. “Boycott is on an individual level, so when you go to the supermarket and you see something that originated in Israel you must boycott it as you are contributing one way or another to the Israeli occupation. Divestment is on a corporate level, so you call for a boycott of G4S, Viola etc. On G4S for example, it has links to the Israeli security and prisons.”

The NUS Executive Council passed its motion to support BDS in 2013 while a series of attacks was ongoing in Gaza. The Executive Committee felt that this would give people a greater perspective on the situation in Israel. “I said that I lived most of my life to the east of there and that was the area most hit, I managed to convince some of them who were unsure – people who were on the left, and the right. ” NUS UK and NUS South Africa are the only national student union’s with official BDS mandates around the globe, but Malaka seemed positive about the movement as a whole. “It’s pretty progressive here (UK & Ireland) when it comes to BDS, maybe 10 years ago it was different. If you were from Palestine you’d be like ‘Okay, I need to keep this on a low level’, now I say I’m proud.”

Despite the campaign’s recent success, such as the passing of a motion in favour of BDS by the University of Manchester’s student union in December 2016, campaigners still face backlash. “You have conversations where people say ‘Let’s build bridges and find a peaceful solution, not BDS. BDS is antisemitic’. As a Palestinian myself who was born during the First Intifada in the 90s, I’ve seen the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority coming together and discussing solutions, while at the same time Israeli settlements were being built on the ground. So I don’t know how a more peaceful solution than BDS could happen if you are not already doing what you say you will do.”

“I don’t think BDS will necessarily free Palestine but at the same time it is very important as it raises awareness and gets people to engage. Because many of us, and many of the people I meet, feel powerless and that there is an injustice going on but are not sure how to help,”

There are more long term goals of campaigning that Malaka felt might be easier to achieve. One of these is the return of Palestinian refugees like her to their homeland. “I am originally from a place called Jaffa to the north, and I have never been there — I have never been allowed to go there, my family have never been allowed to go there. And I think that is unjust and unfair that you are from there but you are not allowed even to visit. And this is why I think BDS represents me in a way because it calls for things that matter to me as a student and a refugee. The other thing is equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.” One of the inequalities faced by Palestinian citizens relates to their right to live in certain areas. If a Palestinian Israeli marries another Palestinian who resides in the Occupied Territories, they cannot reside with said spouse in Israel. However, Jewish Israelis are free to reside in settlements in the Occupied Territories.

NUS antisemitism allegations

“When you go on these trips the organisers are deciding who you meet and who you don’t meet, what to show you and what not to show you. If you want to go to Gaza they will not bring you.”

As a former member of the NUS Executive Committee, Malaka found herself involved in the recent scandal concerning the Vice-President Union Development Richard Brooks and his attempt to oust the Union President, Malia Bouattia. Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit recently reported that he had been gathering a group of people to help him in this effort. In addition, it was discovered that he recently went on an all-expenses paid trip to Israel, in direct violation with the NUS’s BDS mandate.

“The Israeli embassy was contacting Richard and asking him how to oust Malia, and he said that he could connect them with some people in England. She is democratically elected – you can’t do that.”

Closing the interview, Malaka explained what it was about Brooks’ trip that really angered people. She said that it wasn’t necessarily the fact that he went there, but that his trip would not be as genuine an educational experience as visiting the West Bank by himself. “When you go on these trips the organisers are deciding who you meet and who you don’t meet, what to show you and what not to show you. If you want to go to Gaza they will not bring you.”

Stacy Wrenn

Stacy Wrenn is a staff writer and a Senior Sophister Jewish and Islamic Civilisations student.