New documentary from Salt and Light Television portrays struggles of Palestinian Christian university students
By Kris Dmytrenko
Special to The B.C. Catholic
I first met Berlanty Azzam just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Pulling up in a taxi, the business administration student had come here directly from the Gaza Strip. Our cameraman was determined to capture her exact moment of arrival.
It was the first time she had been in Jerusalem in years and, more importantly, the first time the Israeli government permitted her to leave Gaza since she had been deported there from the West Bank one month earlier. She was now preparing to meet with her lawyers before she contested the deportation at Israel 's Supreme Court.
Azzam was just weeks away from completing her degree at Bethlehem University, the only Catholic university in the Holy Land. Bethlehem is located within the West Bank, which, together with Gaza, makes up the Palestinian Territories.
From Bethlehem, she had made a brief trip to the Palestinian city of Ramallah for a job interview. On her way back to the university, her vehicle was stopped at a checkpoint operated by the Israeli military. The officer asked to see Azzam’s ID card, which stated she was a resident of Gaza. Blindfolded and handcuffed, the terrified student was soon transported to the Gaza border and released into the night.
The Israeli government argued she lacked a valid permit to be in the West Bank. Since the Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel (as well as by Canada and the U.S.), travel through the Gaza border is limited to “humanitarian and exceptional cases.” For years, human rights organizations have been pressing Israel to allow undergraduate students to leave Gaza to attend universities in the West Bank, without success.
The Salt and Light Television documentary Across the Divide chronicles Azzam’s fight to return to Bethlehem to finish her degree. The film also shares the stories of other Christian students pursuing their education amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Catholic Church hopes that, through its network of highly regarded schools, the dwindling Christian community can sustain itself in its ancestral home.
From a filmmaker's perspective, we were incredibly fortunate to arrive in the Holy Land just as Azzam’s legal battle was unfolding. But I was reminded this wasn't a movie plot, but real life for a scared 21-year-old, whose future hung in the balance.
What made Azzam’s story even more compelling was that she was not a savvy, outspoken activist, but just a typical student whose time was divided between academics and a busy social life. Reluctantly, she was thrust into the media spotlight, compelled to describe her predicament to outsiders like myself.
For Azzam, it was imperative that she leave Gaza. “After the Hamas government, there is no freedom to do anything,” Azzam explained to me. “It's hard for women in Gaza to have freedom, and it's hard to be a Christian, too.”
While Christian woman must contend with oppressive social restrictions, a more pressing problem is the lack of jobs. Though education opens up some opportunities, certain degree programs aren't available in Gaza.
Through tears Azzam said she would go “Anywhere! Anywhere!” if she could escape Gaza. “I don't want to stay here.”
As for whether Azzam won the right to return to Bethlehem University, I will leave this to be recounted in the documentary, which premieres on Salt and Light Television June 24.
If one day the Palestinian people achieve a sovereign state alongside Israel, as both Israeli and Palestinian leaders maintain is necessary for enduring peace, students like Berlanty will lead it. But like her degree program, and that job offer in Ramallah, even modest goals are elusive for the Christians of the Holy Land.
For tickets visit Salt and Light.