In this Human Voice story, academic advisor Maryam* describes the journey her 6th form students took when their charitable efforts for Palestine were stalled and suppressed by their school.

See CAGE’s latest briefing Understanding Ukraine and Palestine solidarity in UK Schools for our analysis of the disparity between the way Palestine solidarity, like those of Maryam’s students, was suppressed in schools in 2021 compared to the promotion of support for Ukraine.

Spontaneous solidarity meets the school’s silence

When Israeli aggression against Palestinians in Gaza hit the headlines in May 2021, sixth form students at my secondary school were moved to act. As their academic advisor, my students spoke to me about what they could do to help the people of Gaza with their basic needs. It was Ramadan, the scenes of the Masjid Al Aqsa being stormed and the consequent aerial bombing of Gaza were flooding in. Savvy with access to social and alternative media sources, these teenage students had a keen awareness of what was happening on the global stage and felt compelled to do something.

It was time, they decided, to come together and raise funds for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. As the sixth formers organised themselves and came up with fundraising strategies, an excited energy grew for what they could achieve. They assumed – of course – that the school would support their efforts.

As a school, we already had a track record of being vocal about political events and raising awareness of humanitarian disasters. In the recent past, the BLM movement was championed by the school, with everyone encouraged to learn and make noise around racial inequality in the world. In the wake of the Delta variant of Covid-19 hitting India, students were similarly encouraged to fundraise towards alleviating the healthcare emergency there. The school encouraged students’ efforts and supported them with all the resources they could offer.

Then there was Palestine. And nothing was mentioned. There was no assembly to help students make sense of the scenes they were witnessing. There was no talk in the classroom on the history of the conflict. There was no fundraising encouragement to avert a humanitarian disaster. Instead, there was an awkward and stony silence. A silence only rocked by students themselves who took the initiative and decided they wanted to help the civilians of Gaza with basic food, safe water and medical needs.

And so, a series of long and drawn-out events began, where I witnessed my students learn uncomfortable lessons about what it means to advocate for Palestine within public institutions, even (or especially) within educational ones.

A series of uncomfortable lessons

As a member of staff and a Palestinian, I immediately understood there was a line I had to toe. While encouraging the students to fulfil their ambitions, I was conscious of remaining within ‘professional boundaries’ of a mainstream state school that had been deafening in their silence of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

The sixth formers organised a successful non uniform day where everyone donated money to the cause and came in wearing one of the colours of the Palestinian flag. The students researched several reputable charities and presented this to the school. They repeatedly stressed that funds raised would go only to humanitarian causes and there was no political edge to the organisations selected. A total of £1000 was raised, and as the students proudly counted in the money, they did not realise this was only to be the start of their efforts for Palestine.

When the money was sent through to the Finance department for processing, students sent emails asking to be kept informed of next steps. What followed next was a long, drawn out and painful process. The students chased the Finance department for when the money would be sent to charity. No response. They contacted the Head of Sixth Form asking for the status of the funds. No response. They contacted other senior staff. No response. Eventually, replies were bounced from one department to another. Emails were either not responded to at all, or students received vague and confusing responses uncharacteristically late. Time was ticking and the school year was drawing to a close.

During this time, students approached me numerous times to keep me aware of the situation. They told me how frustrated they felt at the school’s unwillingness to send these funds to the agreed charity in a timely fashion. “The school thinks we’ll forget”, “They’re doing this on purpose”, “If it was for any other cause, they would have already sent the money and done an assembly to thank us all like they did for Covid in India.”

Asking for advice, I made sure to tell the students that they must remain persistent and patient. If they really wanted to achieve the outcome they wanted, they had to keep chasing up and know that I would support them in any capacity I could. Seeing young people stirred to act and then deliberately stalled by their educators was painful to witness, and it was even worse to know Palestine was the reason for this special treatment.

Frustrations rise and relationships fray

It was during this time, I thought to reach out to CAGE, an organisation whose work I have been following on social media for some time. At a time where I began to feel deflated myself, the case worker gave me the confidence I needed to not give up on the cause, or the students. My point of contact within CAGE, Hana*, reassured me they had extensive experience of similar situations and that with the right pressure applied in the appropriate way, we would meet success. Using a letter template they provided, I formalised the request for clarity of the funds and took this to the senior management committee. Now the boundaries of the personal and professional risked being blurred. However, that internal conflict was something I had come to sadly accept as an advocate of the Palestinian cause in professional settings.

Though the Sixth Formers had the backing of the school community their efforts were regularly brushed off by senior leadership. Conversations around which organisation to donate the money further complicated what should have been a simple process. Overwhelmingly the students were simply ignored and despite senior staff meeting 1-2 times a week, the issue was not raised or resolved in any reasonable time frame.

The students would openly question the motivation behind the school stalling their efforts, stressing “This fundraiser wasn’t anything to do with politics- it’s for people who have lost their homes, and for clothing and food- where is the politics in this?” What they were sadly learning is that a humanitarian intervention had now become politicised simply because the people being helped were Palestinian.

My line manager who I previously enjoyed a good relationship with seemed to become colder and more distant with me while this situation played out. She withdrew the once comfortable and cordial relationship I enjoyed with her once I was seen as an advocate of the student’s cause. Things got frosty. I began to overhear the frustrated conversations of students who would say “This is so annoying, the school use us when they want us for leadership and when we want to do something of our own initiative, they don’t take us seriously. Why are they saying this is political? How is it political? Why are they even mentioning politics? And if they’re so scared of politics, why did they make a big deal about BLM?”

As they confided in me about how they felt, I made sure to speak in a diplomatic but encouraging way. I told this this was all an important experience for them. What’s important is that they don’t give up. If they believe in what they are doing, they should fight for it. If they feel like the school were waiting for them to run out of patience, they should double down and pursue the outcome with even more zeal.

Belated success and embittered celebrations

Soon enough, school broke up for summer. Upon returning in September, the money still wasn’t released. I asked the students if they had heard anything, but they were now tired and hugely frustrated by the situation. Personally, the thought of taking people’s money and not using it in the way they wanted was heavy on me. The money given was a sacred trust (amanah).

With support from Hana, I managed to help guide the students to keep the pressure on the school. A month into the new academic year, the money was finally released in October 2021. Far from jubilation, the children were more relieved the money was finally going to reach Gaza, but also disheartened it took this much time and effort to ensure the school would do this.

As a member of staff, I often ask myself: should I have been so involved? Ethically I believe yes. Professionally I felt like I couldn’t openly state my views without repercussions. This definitely left me feeling disempowered and discriminated against. It made me question why I was afraid to stand up for something that I know is right. Why do I feel cautious about openly standing up for the Palestinian cause when nobody was scared to stand up for BLM? Why am I having to come into work, contain myself and pretend? During the intense weeks of bloodshed- now live-streamed onto our devices- it was difficult for me to go into school and not feel like I’m “allowed” to talk about it openly. The separation between the personal and professional were getting blurred. It hurt. Why am I having to compartmentalise myself this way? Why do I have to censor myself? Why do I feel so discouraged from speaking out?

The internal questions tormented me.

The importance of affirming students’ power and our ethics

The students truly had nobody else who would give them the moral support they desperately needed. They were not only grateful for my help, but so deeply disappointed and surprised at how openly the school was ignoring their repeated attempts to communicate.

When the children’s morale began to dwindle, I told them that the only people who can change this situation is them. Nothing will shift until they realise their own agency and power in this situation. “You have the right and power to be heard,” I told them, “So stand up and speak for what you believe.” My relationship with the students strengthened greatly during this time, and given how defeated they felt, I feel sure they would have given up on chasing the funds had they not had a member of staff to back them up.

There were times I felt silenced, like I couldn’t be myself. During these moments, Hana at CAGE helped inspire confidence in me. She guided me to the best way to respond to the situation and reassured me that this was a case worth fighting and nobody should accept being treated this way. This undoubtedly gave me the extra boost and encouragement I needed to go forward.

I used this motivating energy to instil courage into the students too. We spoke about the importance of pursuing your principles and to see it through to the end. They felt validated that they have the right to stand up for anybody or any cause they wished to. I know there is professionalism to consider when in work environments, but we are also human beings with a conscience, and we need to do the right thing. For the students, they will grow navigating a complex political environment when it comes to speaking up for Palestine, so this was probably a valuable learning experience for them as they grow into young adults.

Looking back, I feel more confident than ever that in life – and all our personal and professional affairs – our ethics and morals must come first. Nothing will change in the long run if we limit ourselves by believing we don’t have ‘permission’ to speak out. We must ask ourselves, what are we really fearing? Who are we fearing? Why? We don’t need to surrender our power or be intimidated by it, instead we should exercise it and channel it towards the best outcome. No matter how insignificant or limited you feel, there are always options out there. With a sound intention, you will find the courage and avenues to stand up for justice and truth – no matter the obstacles in your path.

* Names have been changed

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)