Six years ago, a group of university faculty and other members of the local community approached former university principal Louise Richardson and asked her if she might be prepared to waive the tuition fees for two Palestinian students to partake in masters’ programs each year. Professor Richardson agreed, provided that STEPS, or St Andrews Education for Palestinian Students, was able to raise funds for all other expenses. In 2013, the charity successfully brought their first student to St Andrews. STEPS is a charity that enables young Palestinian students to enroll in a one-year master’s programme at the University. Founded in 2011, it continues to support two master’s students each year. This year, the programme and charity welcome 22-year old Aya Ibrahim and 24-year old Mohammed Sabbah to St Andrews to study Sustainable Development, and Photonics and Optoelectronics, respectively.
To share the programme with students in Palestine Professor Chris Given-Wilson of the School of History, Chair of STEPS for the past fifteen months, notes the ample amount of support provided by the University and contacts in Palestine, though advertising remains an issue they must continue to work on. “The actual admissions process is organised through the university,” he said. “The postgraduate scholarship department have been very helpful and they advertise the scholarships on the University’s website.” Application forms and details on how to apply are all online. Additionally, he acknowledges the contacts they maintain in Palestine, “There are people working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who advertise the program for us.” The process then generally follows the timeline of a calendar year, with applications going live in January, due in April, applicants selected in May, and scholars finally arriving in town in September.
Meanwhile, to help raise awareness of the charity in St Andrews, STEPS hosts events throughout the academic year. Professor Given-Wilson said, “We organise two events every year, usually a talk and a film. Last year about this time, we had an evening of Palestinian food and culture and that was great.” The events occur in town, with the last one taking place in the undercroft located in the Medieval History department. “I’m a member of the medieval history department,” said the Professor, “so they’re kind of nice to me!”
For both students, discovering the opportunity was relatively straightforward and easily accessible. Ms Ibrahim said, “During my second year of undergraduate studies, I heard about STEPS through my scholarship to study in Lebanon, which was also only directed towards Palestinians.” While her first application in her second year of studies was unsuccessful, she took a year out to work in environmental health and quality management with an engineering firm in Lebanon, applied a second time, and was successful. She said, “I applied again because it was a very competitive program and for Palestinians specifically. Luckily, I got it this year, and here I am!” Mr Sabbah learnt about the opportunity through a friend, whose father was about to work here. “I heard about St Andrews and the Department of Physics, and while I was applying to the university I found out about the scholarship through the website and thus applied for that too.” Mr Sabbah was an admitted STEPS scholar last year, but was unable to arrive in town due to a combination of challenges. Indeed, both Mr Sabbah and Ms Ibrahim’s experiences trying to travel to St Andrews are just a couple examples of how challenging pursuing a quality education can be for Palestinians, and exactly what sort of obstacles the STEPS programme faces and combats with each student they help.
In particular, Mr Sabbah’s experiences prior to arriving in St Andrews proved to be several challenges for STEPS and Mr Sabbah himself. His offer to study in St Andrews was confirmed in May 2016, but a combination of circumstances held him back in Palestine for an additional year. “We were all ready to welcome him, and at the last minute, there were public holidays in Jordan, and they decided not to open the Rafah Crossing [from Gaza to Egypt] when we thought they would,” admitted the Professor. Despite STEPS having arranged the accommodation, flights, and logistics of Mr Sabbah’s stay, and his confirmed place at St Andrews, at the last minute Mr Sabbah was prevented from coming to Scotland, proving to be a very frustrating experience. Professor Given-Wilson continued, “We tried so hard, we wrote to all sorts of people, and there was a man in the Egyptian embassy who was particularly helpful and tried to do what he could, but we just couldn’t get that crossing open.” However, STEPS decided to keep the offer open for Mr Sabbah, so that he could attend St Andrews after a year’s wait. Fortunately, Mr Sabbah was able to keep himself busy, studying new things not related to his field. “I worked as a freelancer online and learned a new language,” he said.
Ms Ibrahim also faced a similar challenge before successfully arriving in St Andrews. She said, “We [Palestinians] have a hard time getting visas. Even now, I have a Palestinian refugee travel document and not a passport. Coming here, I was supposed to fly via Paris, but I didn’t have a transit visa, nor did I know that I would need one.” She was forced to return home, her arrival in St Andrews delayed, but fortunately, STEPS was able to arrange a new flight for her, this time directly to London.
The complications persist, yet the students who attend St Andrews University through STEPS understand the value of education and the opportunity they have been offered, having ambitious goals and pursuing impressive career options.
Ms Ibrahim stressed the importance of a good education, “Education is so important for us, in Palestine and even in Lebanon, because educational opportunities are limited. You need a scholarship to get a good education and you need a good education to get a good job.” Indeed, as a Palestinian living in Lebanon, she is banned from working in 70 professions, coupled with a law that restricts Palestinians from entering several fields of work. “I couldn’t get many good jobs with very good salaries just because I am Palestinian. I feel like getting a good education is my only way to a versatile life,” she stated. Mr Sabbah also recognises the opportunity to be studying at one of the UK’s best universities, as he hopes to pursue a PhD in the near future. He said, “I came to St Andrews because it is excellent, and STEPS helped me to do so.”
As for settling in to the coastal town? Ms Ibrahim and Mr Sabbah jump to point out first and foremost, the chilly weather! They also note the cordial environment evident in the town. Mr Sabbah shares, “The people are awesome. I was walking on the street and an elderly man said, ‘good morning!’ so I said ‘good morning!’, and then we talked for about half an hour.” He was pleased to meet such friendly people, just as Ms Ibrahim noted the friendly encounters she also had whilst trying to navigate the town her first week in. Both also note the beauty of the place. Mr Sabbah says, “Our accommodation is near the sea and beach, which is very nice.”
As the two students are only in town for a year, they hope to make the most of the opportunity, recommending to other future STEPS scholars to keep busy and focus. As a former exchange student in high school, Ms Ibrahim sticks to one particular rule: get the most out of your time abroad. She said, “We’re only here for a year, and so I’d say try and do a lot of things while focusing on your studies. Have a perfect year and get the most out of it because it’s really an amazing opportunity not to be wasted.”
Indeed, both are taking their own advice and keeping busy within St Andrews. Ms Ibrahim confessed, “At first, I felt like there’s not much to do, but after being around, I realised I was wrong. I’m starting an internship this week, and I’m not having a lot of time to sleep right now!” Meanwhile, Mr Sabbah recommends to future STEPS scholars to manage their time wisely, noting that he has started to plan out his assignments, coursework, and sleep schedule as the year moves forward. However, both scholars are well adept at staying focused and doing well, just as previous STEPS scholars have exemplified. Prof. Given-Wilson said, “Our scholar last year did an MA in Social Anthropology, and received a distinction including in her dissertation on Syrian refugee families in Scotland. I have great confidence that Ms Ibrahim and Mr Sabbah will do very well.” In fact, as already mentioned, Mr Sabbah hopes to pursue a PhD in Photonics following his year in St Andrews, while Ms Ibrahim would like to work with the UN, focusing on their sustainable development goals or working with health in underprivileged countries.
Professor Given-Wilson also discusses the breakdown of the STEPS charity necessary to help accomplished scholars such as Ms Ibrahim and Mr Sabbah continue on their academic and professional paths. Each year, STEPS must raise £15,000 per student, with an average total of £30,000 a year. He said, “When we first launched STEPS, we launched a program that encouraged people to give monthly amounts, whether it be £5 or £50,” he said. Through such monthly donations, the charity is able to account for about half of the necessary income. “What we’d love to do is reach a point where we can fund everything through monthly donations,” he admitted, but that point has not yet been reached. Currently, the remainder of the funds are applied for through various charitable foundations. This year, STEPS has already had a successful fundraising drive, raising around £16,000 through one-off charitable donations. He added, “Certain foundations have been very generous.”
Considering all the difficulties and with seven students having attended St Andrews in the last four years, the STEPS program has been a considerable success. Through STEPS, individuals in the St Andrews community are able to help people living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank who face regulations and difficulties on a daily basis. As Professor Given-Wilson stated, “Educational opportunities are really quite restricted, but education is absolutely fundamental to national and international development.” In an already diverse community here, promoting the STEPS charity adds to this while raising awareness of the problems Palestinians face whilst trying to achieve a decent career and life.
For more information on the program and charity, you can visit www.stepspalestine.org.uk.