Annie Slemrod
The Daily Star
July 12, 2011 - 12:00am

By 1980, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees were living in Lebanon. And despite the difficult conditions in the country’s camps, some 15,000 Palestinians were studying at Lebanese universities.

At the time, Palestinian university students were considered to be foreigners and had to pay correspondingly higher tuition than Lebanese nationals. There was no Palestinian university that offered courses to students outside of Israel or Palestine.

The idea of a Beirut-based Palestinian Open University was born in the late 1970s out of these concerns. Plans were drawn up, funding was found. But as Israel invaded Lebanon and the PLO fled to Tunis in 1982, the university was, for the most part, forgotten.

Now, some 30 years later, Palestinian students are still treated as foreigners at Lebanese universities. Scholarship money has decreased. And a group of young Palestinians have revived an idea from decades past. For the past two months they have been conducting workshops in UNRWA schools, gathering information, and garnering support for the building of a Palestinian university in Lebanon.

In 1977, UNESCO, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, and the PLO signed an agreement in which UNESCO would provide $454,800 for a feasibility study on the POU, with the cooperation of the other two signatories.

The 172 page study, supervised by the eminent Palestinian academic Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, was completed in June 1980. The study and its supporting documents, archived by UNESCO, provide a window into the thought process behind the POU. It placed the POU’s provisional headquarters in Beirut, although it said “the permanent location of the POU should be Palestine itself.”

Mohammad Khaled, a member of the Palestinian Democratic Youth Union and one of the campaign’s organizers, says that the current campaign is still in early days and so there is no corresponding large-scale study. He hopes the group will hold a workshop at the American University of Beirut next month to flesh out the proposed university’s details.

The idea of a Beirut campus has been dropped, and instead organizers hope the university will be located at the UNRWA Siblin raining Center in Wadi al-Zeinah near Sidon.

Khaled says “our plan is to make [the vocational center] a university.”

The 1980 study called for UNESCO to supervise the university, which would include distance learning and have bases across the Arab world. Al-Quds Open University opened in 1991, so correspondence courses have been dropped from the menu, but Khaled says he hopes UNRWA, UNESCO’s successor in Palestinian education, will still head the university.

Khaled says the university should first offer sciences, and build from there. In his description, the university does not seem to have the same nationalistic direction its previous incarnation. The POU was to require three courses that “reinforce the Palestinian identity as one related to the land and history of Palestine and the Palestinian affiliation with Arab culture.”

Reactions to the current scheme have been mixed. Organizers recently presented Salvatore Lombardo, UNRWA’s director of affairs, with a petition 10,000 signatures strong requesting the university. All of the signatories are Palestinian students from the country’s 12 refugee camps.

A Facebook group dedicated to the cause has garnered more than 200 “likes,” and hosts expressions of support from in and outside Lebanon.

There is opposition, too. Khaled said he received one email that read, “You want a Palestinian university? Please get out of Lebanon.” Another said, “please give up your weapons from inside the camps and you can make anything [you want].”

One Facebook poster expressed concern that such a university would keep Palestinians from integrating into Lebanese society.

For his part, Khaled says: “We don’t want to isolate Palestinian people from Lebanese society. [The university] would be open to everyone of all nationalities, but it would be free or almost free for Palestinians, and not for the other nationalities.”

Although the campaigners have expressed hope that UNRWA will oversee the university, the agency does not seem eager to do so. In a statement to The Daily Star, UNRWA said that it “recognizes the importance of university education for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Although this is one of UNRWA priorities … there are currently more pressing priorities in the field of education that the agency is working on, like improving the quality of primary and secondary education.

The agency has recently applied for the accreditation of its vocational training centers in Siblin and the north so that the diplomas that are delivered by those two centers are officially recognized by all universities in Lebanon and by potential employers.”

It also said that it was “strengthening” its scholarship program.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017