Not again…

It is a beautiful day here in Glasgow, with the trees finally waking up to springtime and the birds chasing each other across the park. As we drank our morning coffee and prepared to share lots of good news (we have been invited to share the OPAC course at two conferences as well as at the upcoming RILA Spring School), this was the view from our window:

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We were also very excited because yesterday we heard that our Palestinian colleague Dr Nazmi al-Masri was on his was on his way again. The call had gone out in Gaza: the Rafah border was to be opened again: Nazmi dropped everything (again!), rapidly packed, and went back to the border from which he had only recently been turned back. Surely, we all thought, surely this time he will make it out. He will be able to see Scotland in its May-time beauty, he will join us at the Spring School and come with us to a conference, he will enrich the many events at which he is already booked as a keynote speaker. Our WhatsApp group buzzed with excitement and hope.

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But then – unbelievably – he was turned back. Again. He managed to get out of Gaza but not to enter Egypt. And so Nazmi – our colleague, a talented man, an indispensable part of our team –  has seen again his journey stopped.

He is not alone in his frustration: many thousands of people in Gaza are trapped in the intolerable situation of having obtained visas (at great cost, both in terms of fees and months spent in bureaucratic wrangling) and yet being blocked at the border. He is not alone in his disappointment: we have spent the day shaking our heads, alternating between disbelief and outrage, getting on with things that need to be done to take the project forward while carrying frustration like a coffee cup we keep on drinking.

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What can we do from here, in Scotland, as we wait and wait some more? Writing this blog post feels like a very small act of protest against an international system of borders and politics that treats people as numbers, keeping them in a cage that is their own country, opening the borders arbitrarily only to deny travel at the last minute.  We can’t imagine the level of determination that must be maintained, daily and indefinitely, to stay strong in such circumstances. We can only share our disappointment (again!) from a distance, and demonstrate our solidarity by continuing our work and making the OPAC course the best it could possibly be, making language learning a way of reaching across borders.

 

Only in Gaza: a 50 hour trip to nowhere

As we wrote our last blog, our Palestinian friend and colleague Nazmi Al-Masri was at the Rafah crossing, sleeping rough in order to come to the UK to carry out research, knowledge exchange activities and to meet with partners and collaborators.

The Rafah crossing into Egypt opens irregularly for two or three days every two or three months. The only other option to leave the Strip is travelling through Israel via the Erez crossing but, for Palestinians, obtaining Israeli permission to travel through Erez is extremely unlikely.

No other routes in/out of the Gaza Strip exist, and people wishing to travel need to apply 6-12 months in advance and wait in a queue of about 30,000 other applicants: Palestinian students who have places at universities abroad; patients who need to receive treatment abroad; and men, women and children travelling to be with their families in the diaspora. The names of Palestinian applicants are announced by local media, and those allowed to travel need to be ready as soon as the Egyptian crossing opens, with only a few hours’ warning,

So Nazmi, his name having been called, waited patiently at Rafah for over 50 hours before he was able to exit the Gaza Strip. We received a message from him as he left and, as his friends and colleagues, we all shared the good news: Nazmi was on his way! Many smiley faces were shared on WhatsApp.

Our colleague arrived at the Egyptian border about midnight and – together with other 120 Palestinian women, children, men – he was turned back. The quota for entry into Egypt by then had been reached, and he and his fellow travellers to nowhere had no option but to return.

Nazmi doesn’t know when he will be able to travel next.

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Getting here, getting there

Despite the tension and anxiety caused by the Israeli response to the demonstrations; despite the ‘normal’ power cuts and logistic difficulties; despite having to experiment with different tools and new materials; despite everything, the pilot lessons for the Online Palestinian Arabic Course have now started. Finding the right online platform and the right digital tools to do justice to the materials is proving more challenging than anticipated. As an online course with multimedia material, designed and developed with very modest financial resources, elaborate and costly solutions are not an option. However, technicians at IUG are doing wonders with the software they have available and, although not without glitches and setbacks, the word documents we designed are slowly but surely transforming into an innovative, engaging, creative, multimedia online course.

Managing a team of course developers, technicians, filmmakers, teachers, photographers requires constant presence and coordination. As we write this, Dr Nazmi Al-Masri, our wonderful colleague and project partner, is managing the Gaza team while sleeping rough at the border crossing. He has a UK visa (and this already meant several hurdles) and invitations from a number of British universities. However, the queue of people waiting to leave the Gaza Strip from Rafah, in the few days during which the crossing is open, is incredibly long. Having to camp just to get a chance to leave the Gaza Strip does not stop Nazmi from working to ensure that the technicians at IUG upload the materials, and the piloting course can continue. This is just the latest example of the Gaza teams’ wonderful commitment to our common project.

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As the pilot lessons take place, we are asking the volunteer learners and teachers for open-ended feedback. While we will be assessing more formally the pilot at the end of six lessons, for now we ask them just to let us know what they liked (so we can do more of it) and what they did not like or found tricky (so that we can redress this in preparation of the final version of the course). Unsurprisingly, all learners agree that the main positive element of the course are the Arabic Center teachers. Their pleasant and capable attitude is regularly remarked upon, and this does not surprise us: all of IUG’s Arabic Center teaches are trained and experienced, and while the materials are new to them, working online is not a new experience. Several of the teachers in the pilot have already worked in online collaborations with colleagues at the University of Glasgow: with team members Giovanna and Grazia in the context of the RM Borders project, and/or in Grazia’s doctoral study.

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The materials themselves are praised by the volunteer learners, including our videos (that are our pride and joy). The biggest challenge is making sure that the different platforms we are using for the self-study and the face-to-screen parts of the course work well together. As we are aware, successful e-learning depends heavily on the technical resources or tools used to deliver the course. The tools need to be easy to use, reliable and up-to-date if the lesson is to work. As the financial resources available to the team to design, develop and deliver the course do not allow us to buy sophisticated, state-of-the-art digital tools, all of IUG’s technicians’ creativity and knowledge are needed to make the course work for both teachers and learners using as much as possible free software. This is not without some serious issues, but we are confident that we will have soon a course that is ground-breaking in approach and content, as well as one that is sustainable in the long term by not relying too heavily on expensive software to function.

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