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A land without checkpoints

Michael McVeigh  |  14 February 2019

The suburbs of Melbourne are a long way from the streets of Palestine, but for three student teachers from Bethlehem University a month at an Australian school was an opportunity for both sharing and learning.

One of the things that 21-year-old Samiha Derbas most enjoyed about her time in Australia was the freedom of movement.

‘We don’t feel afraid if we forget our passport at the house’, says the Palestinian student teacher.

Freedom of movement is something most Australians take for granted. But the everyday reality for Samiha and two other student teachers from Bethlehem University – 22-year-old Nermine Hanna and 20-year-old Duaa Abu Rmilah – is very different.

Samiha and Duaa, both Muslim, live in Jerusalem and have to cross checkpoints twice a day just to get an education. Meanwhile, Nermine, although Christian, lives in Palestine and thus faces different restrictions on her movement if she ever wants to leave the West Bank.

‘We really love our home, and we feel proud to be Palestinians. But we have complicated circumstances compared to other countries’, admits Samiha.


The three teachers spent a month on immersion at Loyola College in Melbourne in August last year, as part of an ongoing arrangement between the school and the De La Salle-run Bethlehem University.

Loyola College principal Joe Favrin says he first visited Bethlehem University while on a visit to the Holy Land in 2014. It was there that he and other Australian educators were given a presentation by undergraduates.

‘I was very moved by the struggles that those young people have to go through on a daily basis just to get to university, to be able to study, to be able to work, to have a future. That really moved me deeply, and I thought, “What can I do?”’

Loyola College agreed to sponsor three students each year to come to Australia for a month and spend time at the school. The first group came in 2015, and three other groups have followed since.

The students from Bethlehem live at the school, and are shown around Melbourne by staff at the school. ‘It’s great for our staff and our students’, says Joe.

‘While they’re here they observe classes, they get involved in school life, and they do presentations to our classes about the situation that they have come from, and share some of their story with our community.’


One of the most important aspects of the program is allowing the students at the school time to ask questions of about life in Palestine.

When asked what kinds of questions the students ask, the three teachers laugh, saying that there seems to be some misconceptions about the situation there.

‘[They ask] if we have food, and if we are allowed to drive’, Samiha laughs. ‘The media doesn’t show and reflect everything.’

But there are certain aspects of life that are eye-opening for Australian students.

‘We told them about the checkpoints’, says Samiha. ‘We really suffer from that. We are very controlled by the Israeli Government – they may allow us to go or they may not. They control everything.’

The three explain that there are two types of identity cards in Palestine: The blue ID card is for Palestinian residents in Jerusalem. It allows those who hold that ID like Samiha and Duaa to travel freely in the West Bank and Israel, but doesn’t offer Israeli citizenship.

The green ID card is given to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza areas – and this is far more restrictive when it comes to where people are allowed to settle. It means that Nermine, although Christian, can’t move with the same freedom as her two Muslim classmates as she lives in the West Bank.

‘It’s like living in a big cage’, says Nermine. ‘But the situation is even harder in Gaza, because the people there can’t leave Gaza at all.’

One of the things that they point out is that the situation in Palestine is less about religion, and more about politics.

‘We respect all religions’, says Samiha. ‘Palestine is the Holy Land for the three religions. Muslims and Christians live peacefully, right next to each other. We are Muslims and we study in a Christian university.’

Nermine adds, ‘I’m Christian and they are Muslims. But we are like sisters.’


As future teachers, the three young women feel that they will play an important role in supporting the next generation of young people in their community.

Duaa says that the teaching methods that she saw at Loyola College are quite different than in Palestine.

‘Teachers here care that the students have new experiences, and that they share their experiences with other students’, says Duua.

Nermine, who graduated last year and began work as a kindergarten teacher on her return to Palestine, says she has been particularly moved by the way that teachers and students relate at the school – something she witnessed at morning homeroom.

‘The communication between the teacher and the students was so amazing’, she said.

When asked what message they’d like to leave Australians, they returned to the political situation.

‘The students here are so lucky. We don’t feel this peace and freedom in Palestine. They have to be thankful for that’, says Nermine.

It’s a vision of a way of living that they will take home with them to Palestine.

‘We hope that one day that we will open our eyes and see our homeland as free. That we will be able move freely’, says Samiha.


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