By Zainab Rahim
Why Being a Student Activist Raises More Than A Little Suspicion
There is a thought that still manages to amaze me: almost a tonne of surplus equipment from King’s College London (KCL) crossed a ground breaking 5000 miles to reach Gaza. With the opening of the new decade – we broke the siege.
But the amazement in this case is a combination of good and bad. This time last month, it felt like a day of lost plans. As the snow fell thickly here in London and stranded everyone at home, my heart turned towards the messy ending of the road to Gaza. Needless to say, I was not relieved.
Being a student activist in my final semester before graduation certainly sealed my university life with a kiss. It was the first time that I was able to network with students from other disciplines and backgrounds, and channel my concerns productively. But as the members of Viva Palestina begin unravelling their stories after returning from Egypt in a fragmented fashion, following a lot of drama, violence and wasted money, I can’t help thinking – when has the push for humanitarian aid been such a strenuous and demonised effort?
Don’t get me wrong. There is much to rejoice about here. For KCL, it is the first time in their history that they actually recycled the thousands of pounds worth of surplus equipment rather than disposing it via the usual yearly contractors. They even bothered to give the project a name: Books and Equipment Recycling for International Aid (BERCIA). And for Viva Palestina, they had over 500 astoundingly dedicated volunteers and 198 vehicles of humanitarian aid pushing for the cause. I say astoundingly, because they have had to put up with the most ridiculous obstacles and police brutality imposed by the Egyptian government.
What is particularly concerning is that their ordeal was simply a continuation of the raised-eyebrow attitudes that were faced in Britain before their departure. I am delighted to have been part of the large team who worked diligently over the summer and the new term to collect and pack close to a ton of equipment, which left KCL on 26November 2009. However, I spent the last day running around between campus security, who treated us little better than thiefs loading their own vans, and the Media and Public Relations officer, who questioned our every move. “You do realise this is something to be proud of?” I tried to remind him.
The response from news desks about the groundbreaking achievements wasn’t any more exciting: “Students bothering to send tonnes of aid to developing countries for the first time ever? That’s not really news, love.” Our most neutral of news articles struggled to get into internal and external magazines.
The BERCIA project emerged out of the university occupations which swept across the UK in January 2009. Awakening consciences is undoubtedly an ideal way to end the last decade. The occupations were led by students of various faiths and backgrounds to protest against the war in Gaza and our universities’ connections with such wars. More surprisingly perhaps, they created an innovative platform for discussion and were visited by hundreds of students a day. But again, the suspicion bubble grew ever larger. Even our official Students’ Union who were utterly oblivious to the work we had been doing on campus were called upon to check on us. I got a call once from an SU staff member asking me if I knew anything about an upcoming demonstration. “We need to prepare security,” she said.
But, to me, the truth of the matter was clearer than daylight – the authorities at KCL did not want their students to be anything more than dead bodies walking the corridors, especially when it came to Palestine. Drunken nights at the KCL bars and an occasional structured ‘rant week’ is what we seemed to be encouraged to stick to. After all, KCL is impartial and sponsors only ‘balanced debate’. (That’s of course why they awarded Israeli president, Shimon Peres, with an honorary doctorate just a month before the Gaza war).
Student activists are now unashamedly bracketed into a labelled box by some university bodies as loud, over-the-top and somewhat dodgy folk. The stand for justice has been an uphill struggle, beyond simply that of the humanitarian situation. If not for a few dedicated staff members, including the now-retired Vice Principal for Student Affairs, the BERCIA project would simply not have happened. The Viva Palestina convoy managed to get through Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza with three quarters of the equipment they were carrying. But far from being received with well-deserved warm wishes and congratulations, the Egyptian police forces welcomed them with tear gas and rocks.
Our drivers finally returned to London, but not without injury. “Everyone was injured,” he told us. More recently IUG university, our intended recipient, sent a ‘thank you’ letter to ourselves and to KCL. These achievements are truly remarkable and should not be underestimated. But what strikes me most today, is that in our liberal, civilised British society, student humanitarian efforts are not supported and not recognised. Instead, they go hidden and riddled with suspicion.
As we enter 2010 I continue to be overwhelmed by the passion and efforts of students at university, those who haven’t been drawn into the good old apathy they are often accused of. Their role in raising awareness and making a change, no matter how small, has been exemplary. I am hopeful. The coming ten years will bode well for the student scene. But as for the main university authorities, if there is not a change in their attitude, they will find themselves isolating those who bring the most energy and understanding to their campuses. I can only hope that in ten years’ time they will be replaced by the students of today.
Zainab Rahim attained a degree in English Literature and Language at King’s College London in July 2009. She has volunteered on various fundraising charity projects and was a Student/Graduate Coordinator on the BERCIA project.
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