Knowledge exchange (beyond borders): some good news

After the sadness and frustration of the last blog post, here is some good news: tomorrow we will attend the Language, Translation and Migration Conference and Public Summit 2018, held at the University of Warwick and organised by the Migration, Identity and Translation Network.

We are delighted: this is a chance to share our learning and experience, to meet and exchange ideas with other people working in the field of education and to get more feedback about the OPAC project. Our happiness also has some sadness, though, because our colleague Dr Nazmi Al-Masri from Gaza will not be able to join us in Warwick as planned due to the brutal realities of travelling out of Gaza, and we don’t know when he will next manage to leave his country.

But, returning to the positive side of this news, we are ready for our presentation for Warwick. This will focus on the OPAC course as a  transcultural creative practice, a practical and useful way to challenge the siege which oppresses the Palestinian people, their culture and their language. Working on this is helping us to see again the wider context in which our project is developing, which at times we have lost sight of when caught up in the minutiae of lesson plans and IT problems.


In particular we are re-discovering  the role of language learning and exchange as a key element of hospitality, in the context of  creating welcome and safety for Arabic speakers who come to Europe seeking refuge from conflict. We plan to highlight this use of our course in Warwick and look forward to meeting other researchers who are working to connect language education to issues of migration.

This news really has been a welcome reprieve after weeks of feeling a bit stuck and downhearted. This series of ups and downs really does prove the point that we will bring to the conferences: building this OPAC project is a creative practice, and like all creative processes it has its moments of clarity and moments of doubt. We know it will all be fine (more than fine) in the end – but we look forward to sharing and receiving support from like-minded people before we get to the end!


Swift journeys

Post by Alison Phipps

White-rumped swift, Apus caffer, at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve

It’s a strange thing, but every time I get a message from our colleague, Nazmi, in Gaza telling me that he’s dropped everything because the border is open, and he has valid visas to join us for our events, I ask myself if Taylor Swift is playing in Glasgow in the coming days.

On his first trip over to work with us after the aggression against Gaza of 2014, during which, according to UN reports 1,523 civilian – including 519 children – were killed, I received a text message from Nazmi to the effect that he was in the Sinai desert, and asking if we might book him a flight out of Cairo to London. It was a weekend, but we did. And then I began the trawl for a hotel room. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Taylor Swift was playing Glasgow.

But, to quote Nazmi himself, who is fond of this particular English language idiom, ‘where there is a will there is a way’. And after a lot of searching and waiting lists for rooms we managed to find a suitable room – calm, quiet, comfortable – for his stay.

We too dropped everything just as he has to do, time and again. We’ve got quite used to this very Palestinian way of doing out work, integrating into the patterns that the closures of borders require of us, improvising at every turn, ensuring contingencies. We’d all rather not have to work like this. It would be great for us all – in Gaza and in Scotland – to have the luxury other colleagues have, who work with partners in countries with straight forward and internationally privileged visa relations, to be able to book tickets in advance, for example, or not have to cancel leave or other meetings when we do manage a miracle between us.

When the message came two days ago from Nazmi, that he was at the border again, I smiled, and wondered if Taylor Swift was playing Glasgow. Perhaps we should invite her over again – it might be just the kind of luck we need. It’s certainly more reliable than the Home Office has been or the authorities making decisions at international borders, about our Gazan colleagues.


(image by Derek Keats, Flickr – cc by 2.0)

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:

Glasgow sunny day.jpg

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.


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.


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.