Alareer offered those who were lucky enough to have him as a teacher the opportunity to explore new worlds and new stories, defying the laws of physics and oppression.
By Jehad Abusalim,
One busy weekend in 2004, I was unexpectedly summoned to the principal’s office at my high school in Deir el-Balah, a town in the central Gaza Strip. Being in second grade then, I am certain that I did nothing wrong to deserve a summons. I then sit down, surrounded by the principal, his assistant and teachers. After a little waiting and suspense, the principal informs me that I have been selected to receive a year of micro-scholarship in the English-speaking program ACCESS offered by the American educational organization Amideast in Gaza City. I then feel immense joy, pride and a lot of excitement.
On the first day of class, I travel with the other students from the meeting point in Deir el-Balah to Gaza City by bus. The shuttle passes through the Israeli “Sea Checkpoint”, then located near the illegal Israeli settlement Nitzarim, which separated Gaza City from the center and south of the Gaza Strip. When I enter the classroom, I am greeted by a young professor with a light beard and a gentle smile, who welcomes each of his students. He introduces himself, Refaat Alareer, we affectionately called him Mr. Refaat. From the first day, we, his students, realize how lucky we are to have Mr. Refaat as our teacher. From the moment he grabbed his Velleda marker (a symbol later used to honor his memory), he taught us English, not just as a language with its vocabulary, grammar and structures, but also as a tool for true understanding and true expression.
On December 7, Refaat was tragically killed by an Israeli bombing that destroyed his sister’s apartment, taking the lives of his brother Salah, Salah’s son, his sister Asmaa, as well as the three young children. of Asmaa. When I saw the post on X reporting Refaat’s death, I was overcome with shock and amazement. News of his death then quickly spread around the world. As Yousef Aljamal, one of Refaat’s closest friends, explained, he was a character universal. Refaat aspired to be part of a world that went far beyond the borders imposed by Israeli walls. In his quest, he has forged connections and friendships across the world. Those who know him and his writings, as well as the words of his students, those who listened to his lectures and interviews, saw in him a reflection of Gaza’s potential. Everyone was deeply sad and devastated by this brutal death.
To understand the impact of Refaat’s death, you have to take the time to know him a little. As a professor of English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza, Refaat was considered an intellectual essential to Gaza’s cultural scene, but he was also more than a teacher or professor. For him, the English language was a vector of liberation and emancipation. In Gaza, a place ravaged by decades of occupation, dedevelopment and isolation, making contact with the outside world was an incredible challenge. Refaat understood well that teaching and learning English presented a unique opportunity to break down the physical, intellectual, academic and cultural barriers imposed by the occupation. He saw English as an act of resistance and defiance.
And for those who were lucky enough to learn with him, being in his class meant transcending the traditional educational experience; he made learning English cool and enjoyable. Refaat not only passed on his knowledge; it also offered a glimmer of hope, a respite from the constant pressures experienced in Gaza. His classes were journeys, both intellectual and cultural, beyond the borders of the blockade, allowing us to explore new worlds and new stories, defying the laws of physics and oppression.
Refaat taught Shakespeare and John Donne to his students, but not only that. He also introduced them to Malcolm X, feminist literature and even the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. This window to the outside allowed us to experience a world going well beyond the borders of Gaza, giving rise to the desire to fully take our place there.
Refaat was born in 1979 in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood, east of Gaza City, where its residents are renowned for their tenacity, humility, courage, pride and dignity. Throughout his childhood and beyond, he encountered the challenges of life under Israeli occupation. Despite this, and despite our almost two decades of friendship and his energy in encouraging others to share their stories, he rarely shared his own.
In 2020, I invited Refaat to contribute to the anthology Lights in Gaza: writings born from fire, which explored the future of Gaza in the context of its past and present. I had initially suggested that he write about the problems facing the education sector in Gaza. But upon reflection, Refaat expressed his desire to share his own story. He titled his chapter: “Gaza asks: when will this pass?” In it, he details how, growing up, the people of Gaza reassured each other by saying “This will pass” during times of tragedy, mourning or trial. Refaat, witnessing the despair of his brilliant students, friends and neighbors finding themselves in poverty and idleness, then transformed this comforting fad into a question posed to the outside world.
Refaat saw his contribution to Lights in Gaza as an opportunity to shed light not only on his ordeal but also on that of two million people living and dying under siege; his hope was that it would inspire others to act. As the isolation of Gaza under the Israeli blockade intensified, he felt a vital need to make the world understand the suffering inflicted on Gazans.
Despite his notable efforts, Refaat knew well that he was only showing a fraction of the many problems facing Gaza. Teaching and writing were useful, but only to a certain extent. In recent years, as a full professor at a university where his position was once considered prestigious, he has had to find a second job to help his family survive the worsening economic conditions in Gaza.
This situation made Refaat anxious and constantly worried. By telling his story in Lights in Gaza, he recognizes that storytelling is crucial but requires an audience willing to listen, absorb and act. Her stories and those of her students were not mere artistic expressions but rather heartbreaking calls for empathy and action that alleviates the suffering in Gaza.
Refaat closes his chapter in Lights in Gaza in writing :
When I was approached to participate in this book, the promise was that it would have an impact and that policies, especially in the United States, would improve. But, let’s be honest, will that be the case? Does a Palestinian life count? Honestly ? You who read these chapters carefully, what can you do, what will you do, knowing that what you do can save lives or the course of history? You who read these lines, will you do something with it? Gaza is not and should not be a priority only when Israel is shedding Palestinian blood. Gaza, as the epitome of the Palestinian Nakba, is suffocating and being massacred before your eyes and often live on TV and on social media. This will pass, I continue to hope. This will pass, I continue to say it. Sometimes I really mean it. Other times no. And as Gaza continues to fight to live, we fight for this to pass, we have no choice but to return the blows and tell our stories. For Palestine.
Today, in Gaza, the very structure of Palestinian society is under attack. And, therefore, the intellectual community of Gaza: teachers, authors, doctors and poets like Refaat. It is a cruel and deliberate attempt to extinguish the flame of hope, to remove the compasses of Gaza. Yet Israel misses a fundamental truth: for every intellectual who falls, every cultural center destroyed, a new generation rises, inspired and more determined. They carry the legacy of their predecessors, nourished by a common vision of freedom. To echo the title of Refaat’s book, Gaza answers you, we will continue to respond. We, his students and those for whom his words and his memory are dear, will persist in telling his stories and ours. We will continue to tell these tales until we have our rightful place in the world, until we are free.
Jehad Abusalim is executive director of the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center.
Source: The Nation
LG translation for the Palestine Media Agency