EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH AYMAN QWAIDER
Ayman Qwaider, is a 24 years old humanitarian activist who has a bachelor’s degree in the English language and General Education. He was born in Nuserate Refugee camp which is located in the middle of the Gaza strip . He has worked in different fields for 4 years prior and after terminating his universtiy studies.
During his university studies, he has volunteered in different local humanitarian organizations, where he developed social activism skills. He organized a series of projects for refugee camp children who have endured devastating conditions due to the Israeli military activities and its Assault on Gaza , and the on-going blockade. Part of that work included active participating in practical community initiatives carried out by young people.
Two years prior to leaving Gaza to complete is master’s in Spain , he has also participated in the Palestinian International Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza. Throughout his time working for this campaign, he took part in organizing many non-violent activities that enjoyed the support of many international civil societies, Israeli human rights organizations and other solidarity groups from across the world. The main objective of this campaign has been peaceful and non-violent struggle, coupled with international media campaigns to unmask the Israeli siege over the Gaza Strip.
Exclusive Interview with Ayman Qwaider
Please describe what life is like for Palestinian from Nuseirat, a refugee camp situated in the middle of the Gaza Strip?
Ayman Qwaider: The living conditions in a Palestinian refugee camp have been the same ugly picture since 1948, when the indigenous peoples of that area were forced out of their homes by well-armed and funded non-indigenous Jewish immigrants just arriving from Europe intending to create an exclusively-Jewish state known as Israel. It would be pretty hard to describe what life for such a refugee is like in only a few sentences, and even with that, it truly is something that unless you experience it you will more than likely not understand.
Part of the painful history endured by these refugees is that their situation is very harsh. Without assistance agencies such as UNRWA–the United Nations Relief and Work Agency–and other humanitarian agencies to keep their life sustainable they would simply cease to exist. The overall awareness amongst the 1.5 million people living in Gaza is the feeling of insecurity and uncertainty. It is difficult for a human being to live in an unstable and insecure environment such as the Gaza Strip where people are constantly exposed to all colors of human rights violations. Every day the mother sends her children to school to receive an education, but she is not assured of having lunch for them or not…The farmer takes care and cultivates his land, but he is not sure that he will eat what his hands have created. The Gazan fisherman goes every day to fish but is not certain he will make it back alive to feed his family. Students spend 12 years in their studies but are not sure they will be able to pursue higher education. In the rare case students are allowed to exit Gaza to study they are unable to visit their families on holidays. The only EU-funded Gaza international airport that is supposed to connect 1.5 million Gazans with the outside world has been totally destroyed by our Israeli occupiers. This a brief overview about the current unstable and insecure existence in the Gaza Strip due to the four-decade Zionist occupation of our lands.
What was your education in Gaza like?
Ayman Qwaider: I received my overall education in UNRWS School (United Nation Relief and Working Agency) in Nuserate Refugee Camp. Despite the unstable drastic conditions that dominate in the Gaza Strip, I had a regular education. I finished my degree at the Islamic University of Gaza in January 2008 where I studied English and Education. As “normal” as all this may sound, the truth is that the situation for students in Gaza is completely different from those studying outside of Palestine. Most students here never get the chance to prove their true potential. I am 100 percent certain that they have the desire and energy to do so, but they are simply not given the space to demonstrate their abilities. Of course, the students are seriously affected by the on-going siege of the Gaza Strip; we cannot get the materials we need, such as books, stationary and even paper. In the most recent one-sided war, several of my university buildings were partially (or in some cases COMPLETELY) destroyed. With the borders closed by Israel, no raw materials are being allowed into Gaza, so those buildings that were destroyed a year ago are still lying in piles of rubble.
I can still remember the time I was still in secondary school before the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005, when the Israeli army would block the road that ran from where I lived to where my school was. So, from an early age I learned the education of occupation.
You were 14 years old when the 2nd intifada started. Did you take part in it? What did you do at this time?
Ayman Qwaider: Great question. I was 14 years old when the second Intifada erupted in 2000. Needless to say that second Intifada was dominated by the sense of violence and destruction carried out by the Israeli aggressive occupation. It was pretty hard for me to get engaged in the Intifada in the sense of using violence as I do not believe in it. Therefore I (alongside my friends) helped in organizing regular demonstrations to challenge the occupation and raise up our voice to the entire world concerning the system of injustices Palestinian are forced to endure. Though the occupation has been brutal, I have built my capacity in learning how to challenge occupation with peaceful means. I joined a set of programs to educate people on how to endure life under occupation during the Intifada.
During the winter of 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead was waged by Israel against the Palestinians of Gaza. What did you and your family experience during such hard times?
Ayman Qwaider: It would be hard to express our feelings during the time of this one-sided war. I do not prefer to refer to the war as a Cast lead, because it’s hard for a rational human being to give such name for a military operation that dehumanizes human beings the way it did. In short, it was 3 weeks of uninterrupted terror. 23 sleepless nights hearing the continuous noise of gunfire…All sectors of life had been paralyzed, from education to health care. Each and every minute during this brutal massacre you are sure you are the next victim. Part of ongoing occupation, Palestinians in Gaza felt totally insecure at that time. Many times my family thought of leaving our home to look for refuge where we might be safer. But glumly we found ourselves fleeing from death to death even at the UN office which is responsible for supplying Palestinian refugees with food and the other basic needs for survival. Even this, the UN compound was targeted, leaving the people in absolute insecurity. I still remember how my mother was afraid during the war due to the constant shootings and regular Israeli F16 fighter jets flying overhead. I was devastating to me to see how my mother was not able to even offer tranquility and security for my younger brothers and sisters because of the fact she herself was not safe. Each minute we hear tragic news of dozens of people being killed, others injured, of homes being destroyed and other public institutions. Directly when the war ended, all that was left was tragedy–not by an act of God, such as an earthquake or tsunami, but rather by the hands of evil men and through their war, violence, and ongoing siege.
Personally it has been hard to me to understand how human beings can do this to others, this systematic dehumanization. According to the mainstream media and Israeli and international human rights organizations, we lost 1450 people, most of them innocent men, women and children. More disappointing to me however was to see that the great part of victims were children under the age of 18. It has been so hard for me when I think about how those children were systematically targeted in this inhuman way. We often hear that man is a rational creature, but I have a very hard time understanding how such rational creatures could do something like this to their fellow human beings and especially innocent children.
When and why did you decided to come to Spain to study a Peace Master?
Ayman Qwaider: I was accepted to pursue my post-graduate studies by November 2009 as a scholarship granted student. I chose to study masters of peace because I totally believe in peace. As a Palestinian living in an impoverished environment deprived of peace in all its aspects, I therefore value peace and believe in its significant role in transforming society. I believe in peace that is based on justice, equality and human respect. I chose this study so as to be able to offer alternatives in viewing the Palestinian conflict on one hand while on the other contributing to the restructuring of peace for those who have lost their sense of it. I am studying peace to transform people’s negative mind-set that for a long time has been associated with losing land and compromising with the opponent. My master program is actually examining three main fields of studies, Peace, Conflict and Development. It draws the great interlink between these three fields of studies, in terms that you do not initiate healthy peace framework without deep understanding of the conflict and that there can be no progress or development without first accomplishing peace. I chose peace studies to widen my knowledge and to be prepared to address the issues of injustices and inequalities in proper ways. I chose peace because my people back home in Palestine have been deprived of that very thing for decades.
What happened when you wanted to come for the first time to Castellón? How did you manage to get out of Gaza?
Ayman Qwaider: It was almost impossible for any students to leave the Gaza Strip by February 2010, the time I left Gaza with little to no change today. In my own case, even though I had obtained the visa to Spain and all needed documents to leave the country, the greatest obstacle for me was something called the Rafah border with Egypt. Like some country behind the Iron Curtain where citizens were not allowed to leave under penalty of death, so too are we Palestinians prevented even from leaving.
After working tirelessly in contacting anyone who would listen to my story and I launched a comprehensive media campaign in the local and Spanish press, including the Facebook group and an online petition. Without going into the painful details, I received my longed-for transit permit from Israel in order to exit the Gaza Strip to University of Jaume in Spain to pursue a graduate degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies. My efforts ultimately bore fruit and ended happily but at that time there were about 600 young people waiting with permits to exit Gaza.
Did you receive international help and support at this time?
Ayman Qwaider: I would not have done it–meaning getting out from the Gaza Strip–without the international support which supported my right to education. When I was stuck in Gaza and within almost one month, I was receiving supporting e-emails and international calls supporting me in my cause. I also admit that some Israeli human rights organization supported me very much when I was denied access to start my education.
What is your experience as a Peace Master Student here in Spain?
Ayman Qwaider: It has been a deeply-enriching experience to have been doing my peace masters in Spain. Meetings students from different part of the world and sharing experiences have been a wonderful opportunity for me personally. I learn that there is not only one way to understand peace but rather many ways, as there are different people, cultures and ideas. Throughout this masters program I have gained proper knowledge of issues of conflict transformation, human rights discourses, theories of humanitarian aid, action and other courses. Through my studies I have developed intimate relationships with many people from diverse backgrounds. More importantly, this program has assisted me in academically framing my experience that I acquired first hand living in a conflicting zone like Gaza and it has given me the opportunity to share this experience with my peers. Given the chance to do this master has actually given me the sense of strength and security to pursue my studies as the educational environment here is much better that in the Gaza Strip.
Do you have any grant from any international organization to help you pay for this master?
Ayman Qwaider: I am currently a scholarship student pursuing my Masters, depending mainly on my scholarship payment assistance.
Which kind of social and economic actions are being taken to help the Palestinian people?
Ayman Qwaider: As a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, I have found alarming and disturbing the level of pessimism about the state of economy and future of the peace process. The mainstream of the Palestinians have been not satisfied with the peace process result carried out with Israel. The estimated number of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip is 1.5 million inhabitants and of those, almost 1.2 million are totally dependent on humanitarian aid and assistance delivered from UNRWA and other international humanitarian organizations. In light of the ongoing Israeli blockade followed by the devastating war, the entire economic and social system has severely deteriorated, with the level of unemployment at 80% and over 90% of people living below the line of poverty.
The absolute control of Israel over the Gaza Strip and restrictions on movement have devastated the economic system in the Strip and in just letting the basic necessities enter the Strip. This has had profound negative consequences for Palestinian society in all sectors. My concern is that the rapid population growth will only add to these already-terrible problems and make finding a solution all the more difficult.
As a peace master student, do you hold out hope for a viable solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Ayman Qwaider: Before being a peace student but rather as human, I do believe that there is still great opportunity for true peace. Peace is always possible but it absolutory requires strength and commitment, and particularly during difficult times. Peace must be based on justice and in cultivating understanding in the face of misconception and conflict. Indeed, it has been 63 years now since the eruption of conflict, and if we have learned anything, it is that recent history has proved that peace can never be accomplished through direct negotiations between Palestinian-Israeli leadership since Israel has always and will always put great obstacles in front of any peace process. This is the orchestrated scenario since the agreement of the Oslo Accords of 1993, as Israel never shows deals in good faith. Humanity has been dehumanized for so long in Palestine, with the ongoing system of injustices represented through an apartheid system, a blockade over the Gaza Strip, the killing of the innocent and the outright theft of land. The only solution to bring about peace and justice in the entire region and to create a fair solution for the conflict is the power of the people. By cultivating a civil, non violent society between Palestinians and Israelis is the only solution to break down the Israeli apartheid system that separates people from people.
We all know how the world would welcome such a development. The power of civil society that helped bring about the end of the apartheid system in South Africa in 1980s can perfectly work in the context of Palestine. South Africans would not have done it without the assistance of the international civil society.
Please sketch for me the future you are working to achieve.
Ayman Qwaider: Since my childhood, I have dedicated my life to assisting my fellow man through education and to help as much as my ability permits me. The life in Palestine always puts a person in daily resistance due to the hardship of life. Therefore I would like to contribute to the process of bringing about peace and justice, a human right for all people.
You fight every day for the rights of your people. For them, you could be described as a hero. What do you think about this?
Ayman Qwaider: What is a hero? From my perspective several thoughts emerge in my mind when I think of a hero, specifically in a very broad sense. The word hero applies dynamically to individuals in different contexts of culture, history, gender, etc. The term hero might generally be associated with that man who is brave, generous and courageous. Considering yourself a hero, you would intimately reflect your own identity, culture, conflict and history.
For me, it had been actually wonderful when I discovered that my personality is motivated toward many interests. I finished my studies from the Islamic University of Gaza and was well-prepared to be a teacher of English language. Through my early life, people around me never stopped telling me that I have got a smiley face. I always enjoyed being close with children. There is one prime characteristic I really admire about the life of the refugee camp, in that its small roads are always crowded with young children where they have fun and enjoy their time, even in such a dire environment. Accordingly, my attitudes had changed from being a teacher of the English language for children to being very close to them through another dimension of work, which is the humanitarian aid and relief work.
Personally, it would be simple to identify the concept of hero according to my perception and my experience in Palestine. For me, the hero is the Palestinian child who grows up and builds his life despite living in such terrible conflict. This perspective is due to the fact that I lived in this situation of conflict my entire life as well as being close to children though my previous work. In this regard, I shift my thoughts dramatically to recognize the smiling child as the truly heroic figure.