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From a Lebanese Refugee Camp to Harvard, Ismail Ajjawi Inspires Other Palestinian Students

StorySeptember 10, 2019
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Image Credit: Abeer Nouf/UNRWA

Today marks a week since Ismail Ajjawi, a 17-year-old Palestinian student who was denied entry into the United States, began classes with his fellow Harvard freshmen. Ajjawi was initially turned away at Boston’s Logan Airport after immigration officials searched his phone and computer, and interrogated him about his religion and social media posts by friends that were critical of U.S. policy. He was then forced to return home to Lebanon, but his case provoked outrage on the Harvard campus and among some Palestinian rights and academic freedom groups. Ajjawi, who is attending Harvard on a full scholarship, was educated in schools run by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine. From Gaza City, we speak with Matthias Schmale, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, and we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Theodore Kattouf, president and CEO of AMIDEAST, an education training nonprofit that works in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, today marks a week since a 17-year-old Palestinian student who was denied entry into the United States last month began classes with his fellow Harvard freshmen. Ismail Ajjawi was initially turned away at Boston’s Logan Airport just under three weeks ago, after immigration officials searched his phone and computer and interrogated him about his religion and social media posts by friends of his that were critical of U.S. policy. He was then forced to return home to Lebanon, but his case provoked outrage on the Harvard campus and among some Palestinian rights and academic freedom groups. Ajjawi’s family released a statement after he was admitted back into the U.S., thanking supporters, Harvard and the educational organization AMIDEAST. The family said, quote, “The last ten days have been difficult and anxiety filled, but we are most grateful for the thousands of messages of support and particularly the work of AMIDEAST. We hope now that everyone can respect our and Ismail’s privacy and he can now simply focus on settling into College and his important class work.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ismail Ajjawi, who is attending Harvard on a full scholarship, was educated in schools run by UNRWA. That’s the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, which serves more than a half-million Palestinian refugee children in over 700 schools. Ismail was featured in this 2019 UNRWA video for their back-to-school campaign.

ISMAIL AJJAWI: [translated] My name is Ismail Ajjawi. I am 17 years old. I scored the highest marks in biology in the south region in the official Lebanese Baccalaureate and the eighth overall in Lebanon. I also scored the highest marks in the Brevet examination in the south region and received a scholarship to study biophysics at Harvard University. I aim to double major and to study medicine in the future. The environment in school and in the camp is very challenging. Overpopulation is a big issue in the camp. The houses are too close to each other. In this atmosphere, there’s no privacy for Palestinian students to study. Every year, these limited opportunities decrease. This is my school, the UNRWA Der Yassin Secondary Boys’ School. The times I spent here were both tiring and fun. I tell my schoolmates to put a lot of effort into their studies and to work hard so that they can fulfill their dreams, just like I did.

AMY GOODMAN: That was now-Harvard freshman Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian refugee educated in UNRWA schools. Meanwhile, UNRWA itself is under threat, after the Trump administration ended all U.S. funding for the program, a loss of about $360 million in annual funding and the organization’s largest single contribution.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Gaza, Matthias Schmale is with us, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza. And Theodore Kattouf, president and CEO of AMIDEAST, the education training nonprofit that works in the Middle East and Northern Africa. AMIDEAST helped Ismail Ajjawi win a scholarship to Harvard University. Ambassador Kattouf is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and then Syria.

We’re going to start with Matthias Schmale, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza. You’re there in Gaza. Talk about this school that Ismail comes from.

MATTHIAS SCHMALE: Yes. Good morning to you, and thank you for your interest in this story. Of course, the situation in Gaza is slightly different from the one in Lebanon, where Ismail went to school, but we run the same school system. We have in Gaza now 276 schools. And in the school year, that started about two weeks ago, we have 286,000 — 284,000 students, like Ismail, wanting, hungry for a good education and with dreams and hopes to maybe not all go to Harvard, of course, but to make something out of this education by continuing to study and finding opportunities, like Ismail has just found.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the number of students in these schools. How unusual is Ismail’s situation? I mean, he gets into school; he gets into Harvard. He comes to Logan Airport in Boston, and he is immediately deported. And amazingly, they said to him they had problems with the Facebook entries not of Ismail himself, but of his friends.

MATTHIAS SCHMALE: Yeah, sadly, this is a situation in which most Palestine children, Palestine refugee children, find themselves in. So, the situation is similar to that of Ismail in that they have the benefit of getting an education through the United Nations, through the UNRWA schools I mentioned earlier, but similar also, sadly, in that the opportunities are far and few between in terms of getting out, in my case here in Gaza, out of the Gaza Strip, and seizing opportunities of scholarship.

And there is another parallel that you alluded to, which is, most of the children I meet — and I regularly visit our 276 schools here and talk to many of the students, many of the teachers — many of the students are just normal children like you and I would have. I have three teenage sons. They have dreams. They are normal children. They sometimes get angry. But basically, they just want to fulfill their dreams for a better life. And sometimes they get punished for association, let’s say, because some friend has been discovered publishing something on their respective social media. So, you will find — I find quite a few kids who talk about this experience of, you know, not being taken in their own right on what they think and feel, but something a friend or a relative may have said. That is definitely a challenge that many of the Palestine refugees face.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ambassador Kattouf, you’re the president and CEO of AMIDEAST. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role that your organization has played throughout the Middle East and the Arab world, and whether the young people that you’re giving scholarships to — whether there’s been any particular problems with the Palestinians, given especially the United States’ policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Yeah, sure. My organization has been around since 1951. We have 23 facilities spread across 11 countries and territories. We have five offices alone in occupied Palestine, including in Gaza City. And we do many programs. But some of our programs are with the U.S. government, and they’re U.S. government-funded.

And Ismail himself benefited from what are known as opportunity grants. That is, he went in Beirut to a competitive college club that helped coach him on how you apply to American university, how you can present yourself. He had to do — you know, he is a self-made man, but we had to teach him how to make himself make Harvard and other schools aware of his abilities.

And we have 53 other Palestinians currently in the U.S. studying at the undergraduate level, who have gone through similar programs. In fact, we have one young man in Gaza, from Beach camp, going to Stanford this year. We have another woman from Gaza going to Smith College in Massachusetts. And I could go on.

But the point is, is that this has not happened at the U.S. points of entry. But it has happened — we have had problems in Gaza getting the kids out in past years. I believe the Israelis believe that the Palestinians in Gaza should get rid of Hamas. And when they couldn’t or didn’t, there was more or less mass punishment. So it was always a struggle every year to get our Gaza students out, including Fulbright scholars who are on U.S. graduate school scholarships. Eventually they get out, but it was always a tussle. This year, I think the Israeli government decided, hey, if they want to leave Gaza, let them go.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ambassador Kattouf, explain what happened with Ismail. Explain what happened when he got to the airport at Logan, why he was deported, and then how you got him back in to start with the freshman class.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Right. Well, you described it very well. It was a matter of his social media. The young man hardly ever posted anything himself. He’s only 17 years old. But they go back five years. He has about a thousand friends on Facebook, and yet he’s not really active with them. They’re classmates and the like. And it appears that the people at Boston Logan, the Customs and Border Patrol people, didn’t like some of the postings of people that were allegedly friends of his. But that raises a much bigger question, of course, and that is intellectual thought, freedom of thought, freedom of speech. What’s the criteria? Nobody accused him of having any terrorist tendencies, any radical tendencies. So what are these people going to be judged on? Not just Ismail. The organization PEN issued a very strong statement over this matter.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened with the Harvard president?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, the Harvard president, President Bacow, was incredible. He showed tremendous empathy, tremendous support. He was in touch with Secretary of State Pompeo, Homeland Security Secretary McAleenan. And the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was tremendous in turning this around. I hope I don’t get them in trouble, but they did a great job, because it was something called opportunity grants, funneled through AMIDEAST, that allowed Ismail to have the financial wherewithal to apply to Harvard and other schools in the U.S., to take the kinds of tests you have to take, and then to get an airline ticket to the U.S. So, it was the right hand of government and the left hand not knowing what each other was doing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to go back to Matthias Schmale on the whole issue of UNRWA’s role. You’re educating more than 500,000 Palestinians in your schools, and yet, at the same time, now you’re facing a cut from the Trump administration to UNRWA of $360 million. How big a hit is this, the Trump administration decision, and what’s that going to do to your ability to provide basic education?

MATTHIAS SCHMALE: Yeah, if I may start just with the dimensions here, our annual budget for the five fields in which we work and in which we run our schools and primary healthcare centers is $1.2 billion. So, if you then lose $360 million of that, that is a significant hit.

How are we coping with that? Well, in 2018, last year, we had 42 countries and institutions like the EU jump in and give us additional money to the moneys they had planned for. So, last year, towards the end of a very difficult year because of losing this money from the U.S. government, we actually broke even. And it was, from that perspective, a success story. Now, we are like a government service, so each year the budget starts again, and the fundraising has to start again. And as we speak today, we still have a projected deficit of over $120 million. So, again, we continue feeling this hit of losing our biggest donor.

And let me also say that, you know, there’s huge appreciation here in Gaza — many people may not believe this — for the U.S. investments over years, if not decades. A week ago or so, I opened one of our new schools here, one of our new schools in Gaza. And it was financed by the last grant we got from USAID for school construction. And there is a plaque at the entrance which says “Built by U.S. money.” And the children and the teachers and my staff here, we are very proud of this. And we regret very much that this investment into education and vital public services has ended. Now, we take the fact that Ismail got back into the U.S. to take his scholarship as one positive signal that there is a lot of solidarity beyond the government in the U.S. and that there is scope for continuing strong relationships and maybe at one point resuming also the financial support.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with the voice of another young person. Democracy Now! spoke to Hatem Hamdouna in Gaza City yesterday. He has attended the UNRWA schools, a member of UNRWA’s Agency-wide Student Parliament.

HATEM HAMDOUNA: [translated] I was born. I have lived through three wars, one at the age of 4, another at the age of 8, and again at the age of 10. I have lived through the darkest moments, and the scenes of war and destructions are still in my head, haunting me in my sleep. During these darkest moments, UNRWA schools were my only hope for a successful future, as they provided us with education during emergencies. …

In spite of all these negative things in the Gaza Strip, I want the world to change this view and perception of the Gaza Strip. In spite of the closure of the Gaza Strip, without water or electricity, and the absence of freedom of all these negative things, I want you to know that Gaza is greater and a lot more than that, because children like myself in the Gaza Strip do not wish to be seen as victims, but rather as makers of change. …

In the future, I would like to become one of the best surgeons in the world. Education is the means for me to realize this dream and my aspirations. However, I sometimes feel afraid and concerned due to the shortage of job opportunities here in the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s UNRWA student Hatem Hamdouna, speaking to us from Gaza City. That does it for this segment. We want to thank Matthias Schmale, who is director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, speaking to us from there, and Theodore Kattouf, president and CEO of AMIDEAST, who made Ismail Ajjawi’s possible — his scholarship at Harvard. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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