SciencesPalestine: A Conversation with Jarah al-Hawamdeh

-By Omar Auf

24/1/2019

17:00

The Petit Amphitheatre is crowded and everyone is seated. At the strike of 5, Mentonese time (GMT+1:15), Samar, the head of SciencesPalestine, begins to speak. She stands in front of the crowd, explaining their mission as a student association. “We want to show you what Palestine is”, she says, and emphasises that despite the occupation, Palestine is a beautiful country. Today’s speaker exemplifies that sentiment –  Jarah’s story is testament to the grit, resilience, and spirit of Palestine and its people.

Jarah and his translator, Rahmeh, are here today with the help of UNRWA. Rahmeh works for the organisation, and we open with an introductory video that explains its operations, goals, and impact on Palestinian refugee communities. It’s worth noting that UNRWA has faced a huge reduction in financing due to the Trump administration’s decision to cut UN funding. Instead, the organisation has turned to donations from other public and private parties – including students of Sciences Po Campus de Menton, where an UNRWA fundraising drive was held last year.

After the video, Jarah begins to speak. He introduces himself as the first Palestinian and the first Arab with an artificial limb to climb Mount Everest. A tremendous feat, no doubt – mind you, he’s still 23. Jarah then continues to explain the difficult situation Palestinians are put in with the aforementioned funding cut by Trump. He also states that it has been a consistently tough situation for them since 1948, disclosing that his own family were refugees in Kuwait then Jordan. He takes us back in time, describing his family’s life before; they were traders who lived in a place called Yazour in Yafa.

A key element of UNRWA’s work is the provision of and access to public education. Jarah was a student in UNRWA schools himself, living a “normal” life as a Palestinian. Then, in 2010, he gets life changing news: he is diagnosed with cancer. Due to Stage 4 Osteosarcoma, Jarah was faced with the difficult choice over amputating his leg after initial treatment was unsuccessful. In 2011, he went through with it, and at this point he describes himself as “started thinking [sic], Jarah, what was your purpose in life?” Jarah opens up about this moment of introspection, stating “I remember I was in room 115, looking out at the world and thinking ‘what can I do in the world…’ I decided to be a climber because it’s a different and exceptional sport”.

Jarah continued his education with UNRWA, with the staff and students always at his aid. His classes were always in the ground floor and a special bathroom was made for him. With their support, he began saving to realise his climbing career. In 2013, he climbed the highest mountain in Jordan, “one of the greatest challenges of my life”, as he puts it. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that Jarah lacked any formal training or access to resources that other climbers of his calibre benefit from.

Moreover, Jarah continued to pursue his studies, receiving a diploma in physiotherapy and addiction, and chose to channel his knowledge back to helping his community. Today, he helps to raise funds for students with cancer, and in 2015, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to support cancer survivors in the King Hussein Cancer Center in Jordan, as well as Palestinians just like him. However, in 2016, as UNRWA funds were cut heavily, he felt a growing responsibility to the Palestinian refugee community, especially in the field of education. Jarah describes education as the tool to “break barriers and experience the world”, and had experienced firsthand its transformative effects on his own life.  Determined to preserve this opportunity for others, Jarah began fundraising to save his former school. Thus in March of 2018, he packed his bags and headed once again to the mountains… this time, to Everest.

The journey was dangerous – they started as a group of 12, but only 2 were able to continue till the end. He counts over 17,000 steps to the summit. Jarah proceeds to describe one of the more precarious days, where there was a cold and harsh storm. He had injured his back, but then he looked to his phone and saw a message from a 5th grader from his old school telling him “Jarah, you can do it, we need your help”. The knowledge that he was working for something larger than himself is what ultimately kept him going, and allowed him to realise this unprecedented feat.

After re-affirming the critical role of education for refugees, Jarah ended his speech and began taking questions. Unsurprisingly, the audience had many further questions about Jarah’s work and UNRWA’s broader activities in Palestine. Jarah and Rahmeh were asked about whether UNRWA schools are created or only funded by UNRWA – over a thousand schools have been built and supported by UNRWA. This was followed by a question on the language of education in schools, which is taught in both Arabic and English. Other questions followed, including the present state of UNRWA’s funding. Rahmed said that most funding comes from private donations, strategic donors, or the EU.

Finally, when asked if there was a climber who inspired Jarah to begin this endeavour, Jarah answered with a negative, and established that he wished to be such an example for others to come. He wishes to be the first, to be the inspiration. Indeed, Jarah has been an inspiration for all who attended this talk, and his story is testament to the importance of empowering local communities and supporting education and long-term reconstructive work in affected regions. We at Le Zadig wish Jarah all the best in his mission!

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