Curfews and checkpoints make it difficult to move across cities like Ramallah, where Saba’ Albess lives. “You can’t even visit the sea without a permit,” she says. From her room in Albany Park, Saba’ can hear the sea.
When we sat down for this interview, Saba’ was mulling over her dissertation topic on Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian security studies. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in IR thanks to a scholarship from the St Andrews-based charity STEPS, which has partnered with the University to waive tuition fees for Palestinian postgrads. The STEPS initiative has received high praise in high places, but Saba’ supports it most emphatically of all.
“The whole program is dedicated to the cause of allowing Palestinians the chance to study at one of the UK’s finest universities,” she says. “The STEPS trustees have been really helpful. They made me feel at home, calling to check up on, and being there for me. They believe that the right of education is everybody’s right.” For Saba’, “Everything comes with studying. I hope STEPS continue to support other Palestinian students like me to come to the UK, to gain different experiences, to pursue their education through academic programmes that aren’t available at home.”
While studying at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, she always wanted to do IR, but with so many eager Palestinian students hunting for limit scholarships, the search proved difficult. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in English literature and translation, she worked in Palestinian civil society and the British Consulate-General in Jerusalem for three years until she found STEPS. “You can get quality education back home, but I wanted to get another perspective, especially on the Middle East.”
At St Andrews, STEPS offered “a variety of courses taught by some of the world’s greatest experts.” But Saba’ learns just as much from her classmates, many of whom have first-hand experience with the places she studies. “To meet and work people like this – it’s such a privilege. I have a diverse group of classmates, and everyone has their own perspective, which makes classes a rich experience.
“Being a Palestinian studying here, I can say it’s been a training for me to open myself to other perspectives, meeting others who have seen different things in the same places.”
For Saba’, the best thing about St Andrews is the people. “Here, people are from countries you’d only hear of on TV. I have classmates who are Uzbek, Brazilian, Polish… Studying and learning with so many different people is self-enriching. You learn about yourself by learning about other people.”
Palestinian universities are not as diverse as St Andrews. She attributes this to how difficulty it is for Arabs to enter Palestine. “My housemate is Syrian. To meet other Arabs is special to me. We never see each other.” Here, Saba’ meets other Arabs at student organizations such as the Middle Eastern Society and the Islamic Society.
Her time at St Andrews also allows her to break stereotypes. “We think we are very different,” she says, “but we are also very similar. We listen to the same music, enjoy the same food, and have the same wait for the latest Game of Thrones episode…”
She still misses Palestine, of course. “For someone who hasn’t lived in Ramallah, it could seem challenging, but it’s still a great city. It’s my city.” It may seem like just a quiet seaside town, but life is different in St Andrews, where Saba’ can cycle to class for the first time in many years. “I feel that I can call St Andrews a second home, even though it’s just been about seven months. I made another family. It was a good decision to come here.”
After her masters, Saba’ wants “to travel and work in many different places, especially northern Africa. It’s healthy to shape your identity through travel.”
For more information on the STEPS program, visit their website: http://www.stepspalestine.org.uk/.