Amanie Issa was sitting in a lecture hall learning about human rights the first time she experienced a raid on her university.
“You feel all this pepper in your face and everyone started running and screaming, the tear gas was too much to bear. The Israeli forces were arresting people and smashing computers, it was traumatising. The irony was we were in class learning about our human rights.
“When they left everything was quiet, you could see smoke and rubber bullets. And then we just went back to class. That happened multiple times a year. The normalisation of it all is what sticks in my mind – the running, hiding, and then going back to class.”
Travelling from her home in Bethlehem to classes at the Al-Quds University in Jerusalem each day was also a challenge. “I had to go through checkpoints that should take 20 minutes but could take two hours. You always needed to have your green ID, it was so stressful. My four years of undergrad were not normal, we always had to be prepared for the unexpected.”
Born in Bethlehem into a Muslim family, Issa’s parents sent her to a private Catholic girls’ school where her mother felt her daughters could get the best education.
“My mum stopped school when she was 15 and she had to work to provide for the family. She loved education and had dreams of becoming a doctor. But she married really young and never had the chance for a proper education. She made a promise to herself that if she had daughters, she would make it her priority to get us an education.
“She told me one day ‘when I look at you, it’s exactly what I envisioned; getting your master’s, going after your education’. I owe her a lot.”
Growing up, Issa’s parents preferred not to speak at home about the political instability of the West Bank region where they lived. She recalls seeing tanks pass on the streets and asking her mother why school closed unexpectedly and curfews were implemented. “I was a very curious child and asked lots of questions. She explained that people came and took our land from us and that they kept taking our land. She tried to simplify it without going into details.”
Issa still clearly remembers watching a news report on TV about a child in the West Bank who had been shot in the head. “From then on I started having nightmares. I thought they were going to kill me and my family and take our house and land.”
She found her school teachers also avoided speaking about the region’s conflict. “Not many parents wanted their kids getting too much political information. I still don’t know the logic behind that, it’s important to know where it’s all coming from. In history we learned about the UN and its structure and about its protection of rights. My question was we’re Palestinian and we’re humans, why aren’t our rights protected?”
After school, Issa studied for a BA in international law and human rights at Al-Quds Bard College in East Jerusalem and in 2020, she was awarded a scholarship to study in Ireland through the Ireland-Palestine programme and secured a place on the Masters in International Human Rights Law at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in NUI Galway.
When they announced the second semester was also going to be online I broke down. It was the hardest year of my life
Having spent a brief period studying in the Czech Republic during her undergraduate degree, Issa was keen to travel abroad again. “I’d experienced some normal university life in the Czech Republic, but this would be for a whole year. I could get up at 7.30am, have my coffee and go to class without worrying about checkpoints or my green ID. I was so happy when I was accepted but then they sent out an email saying classes for the first semester would be online because of Covid.”
Issa was given the option to defer her studies but chose to push ahead and arrived in Galway in September 2020. “I got really depressed with the online classes although having curfews and not leaving home felt familiar. It felt like I was back to square one, I couldn’t go outside because there were bad things happening outside. This time it wasn’t the occupation, it was the pandemic. But both are hurting people. When they announced the second semester was also going to be online I broke down. It was the hardest year of my life.”
Fortunately, Issa met other scholarships students like herself and became close with a Nigerian girl living in her apartment complex. “When I look back now I realised everything happens for a reason and I learned a lot. I’ve learned to value everything, lockdown has taught me about this.”
In May, Issa was asked to speak at a protest in Galway held in response to the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip. “I didn’t know what to say so I just said what I felt. And I felt proud of myself. It’s true that being involved in politics is exhausting but it’s worth it if you’re doing it for a purpose and fighting for your existence. This year has made me even prouder to be Palestinian.”
Issa also felt heartened by the Irish solidarity with the Palestinian cause. “My dad used to talk about the Irish struggle when we were younger, we knew land was taken from them by the British. I feel Irish people understand the concept of land better than others. They speak with pride about Ireland the same way I speak about Palestine. That solidarity had made me fall in love with Ireland even more. Ireland is my home away from home now.”
Issa travelled to Bethlehem to visit family for a few weeks in September but is now back in Galway working remotely for the World Bank as a legal consultant focusing on women’s economic and social development. She hopes to stay and do a PhD but admits feeling a sense of guilt about the peace and comfort she enjoys living in Ireland when so many people continue to struggle in her home country.
“The other day I was sitting by the river, reading Sally Rooney’s new book and it was so peaceful. So many Palestinians never experience that; their dream is to sit by the water and read a book. I’ve had that feeling of peace that others are yearning for while their school is demolished or they’re kicked out of their house. Every person in the world deserves to have that feeling.”