Palestinian refugee student fights in UK for her future in a country not a camp

Palestinian refugees from Gaza are not entitled to Jordanian citizenship even if they were born in the country

'I don't have many choices': Gazan refugee fights to provide hope with UK scholarship

'I don't have many choices': Gazan refugee fights to provide hope with UK scholarship
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When Marwa Al Khamash finally submitted her master's dissertation, the sense of relief was fleeting. Being stateless, there is little time for respite before she has to face the next hurdle. The next one being how to get on a pathway to citizenship in the UK while harnessing her experience to help those she's left behind.

It’s been a year since Marwa, 26, left Jordan for the first time and stepped on to the tarmac of Heathrow Airport. Clasping her two-year temporary passport, assigned to those without citizenship, she knew there was no turning back.

“My friends have a country to go back to, I have a camp,” she reflects, stepping on to a train to the University of Birmingham, where she is about to complete a master's degree in international development.

Marwa is the first of generations of refugees from Jordan’s Gaza camp to receive a scholarship to study abroad. It was her only ticket out of one of Jordan’s poorest Palestinian camps.

Nestled between olive groves in the Jerash valley, the Gaza camp is home to about 50,000 refugees from the Gaza Strip.

A large proportion of Jordan’s 10 million population is of Palestinian descent. While most of them have citizenship, refugees from Gaza do not. With this status comes a denial of basic rights, including to legally work and access to education and health care.

It was within this context that Marwa applied to the Said Foundation, which offers postgraduate scholarships to leading UK universities for students from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.

Belonging to neither Jordan nor Palestine, Marwa initially doubted whether she would qualify for the scholarship. But she had little to lose. “The year before I came here, it was hard because of my passport, I couldn't find a job. My opportunities are very limited.”

When she was accepted, she knew this was the one chance that could change her life.

Growing up in Gaza camp, Marwa’s path to higher education was lined with overwhelming obstacles. Unlike most residents of Jordan, including Syrian and Iraqi refugees, Gazan refugees are excluded from the public education system.

With high university fees reserved for foreign students, alongside the obstructions to work, it is almost impossible for many young stateless people to continue their studies. A 2021 Unicef report said 43 per cent of Gaza camp residents aged 15 to 24 are not enrolled in any kind of formal education programme.

Britain’s attractiveness to foreign students looking to study abroad has grown rapidly in recent years. The number surpassed 600,000 for the first time in the 2020-21 academic year.

Saudi citizens tend to make up the highest number of students travelling to British universities from the Middle East.

Many of these travel to the UK on scholarships, including those on the fully funded Chevening scholarship for master's students. It covers university tuition fees, a monthly living allowance, return flights to the UK and additional grants and allowances for essentials.

But many overseas citizens who qualified for the Chevening programme have faced hurdles in recent years.

Afghan students on the scheme this year voiced concerns they would be sent back to their Taliban-ruled homeland once their studies have ended.

The Home Office initially said learners should follow the standard Chevening rules and return to their country of origin or a third country after graduation.

This caused concern among Afghan students and led to reports of some having panic attacks as a result of the threat of deportation.

But the government later clarified its stance to say Afghan students can apply for another UK visa, such as the graduate route, or consider claiming asylum.

The UK government introduced a graduate visa scheme, which allows international students to live and work in the country for up to two years after graduating.

Marwa has applied for the visa but faces uncertainty while she awaits an outcome of a second track application for a working visa that could provide a path to residency.

'Football saved my life'

Seventy years after the mass displacement of Palestinians in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Marwa feels the millions of refugees scattered across the region have been left behind. “I think the Palestine crisis is forgotten by the international community. They are refugees and isolated in refugee camps, without any opportunities, with a very hard life. But we don't get any help to change the situation.

“Youth in the camp try very hard to change their lives but there are so many barriers that prevent them,” Marwa explains. “Many times I stopped trying and thought I would end up in the camp. I won't have any chance to achieve my dreams.”

She credits her family and friends for giving her the strength to continue her fight to build a life outside the repressive confines of the camp. She studied intensely at high school, winning a scholarship to Jordan’s Yarmouk University in 2013, where she completed an undergraduate course in English Literature.

It was during this time she also started the first women’s football team in Gaza camp, defying fierce criticism from within the conservative community. “For me growing up in the camp, there wasn't much we could do. So, football really did save my life … and I want to do this for other people as well.”

It is this passion that Marwa brought with her as she embarked on her degree at the University of Birmingham, where she wrote her thesis on the power of sports in refugee camps.

As the academic year comes to an end, the path ahead for her is not the same as the future her peers are envisioning.

While others are excited to return home to their families, Marwa has to fight to stay in the UK. Going back to Jordan would mean returning to a life devoid of hope, where she will struggle to work or achieve the dreams for which she has fought so hard.

For now, she awaits the outcome of her post-graduate working visa application.

If successful, her next challenge will be to find a job with an employer who will sponsor her.

Marwa is currently working at a refugee rights organisation, offering invaluable personal and professional advice to help others like her.

After five years on a working visa and an eight-year journey from start to finish, Marwa will eventually become eligible for the right to citizenship. She will be 34 by the time she gets to hold her first permanent passport.

But while Marwa has left Gaza camp behind, she refuses to forget.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than half of the world's 14.8 million school-aged refugee children are without a formal education. And while Marwa has taken that first step towards breaking the generational cycle of social and economic discrimination, she knows millions of stateless young people in Gaza camp and across the world do not have the same chance.

“I think scholarships, like the Said scholarship, are very important for refugees. For stateless young people, education can be the first way to change their lives,” Marwa says.

“I hope I can make a good example for the people in Gaza refugee camp and other camps in Jordan, that no matter how hard it seems you can always create your future.”

Updated: September 26, 2023, 8:42 PM