I am a woman. I am Birzeit.
Women have always been a driving force of excellence at Birzeit University. In fact, there would be no Birzeit University without the great efforts and contributions of two female entrepreneurial, future thinkers: Nabiha Nasir and Ratibeh Shkair, the founders of Birzeit School for Girls, which would later become one of the most prestigious universities in Palestine.
For the 2018 International Women's Day, we are celebrating those who keep Birzeit University ticking; those who call the university their first home; those who breathe the spirit of Birzeit; those who made this university their life’s work.
To the women of Birzeit, you have our utmost respect and admiration. You are the backbone on which rests the top national educational institution in Palestine. You are Birzeit University.
This article highlights a few of the university’s women who have set examples of dedication and hard work. Due to technical and time constraints, we were unable to interview all of the women at the university; however, by the coming years, we will include all women.
The embodiment of Birzeit University’s spirit, In’am Dager has been dedicating the bigger part of her day for the university for the past 24 years and counting. Like all secretaries of departments in the university, she is the lifeline between the students, the faculty members, and the administration.
At any given moment, In’am could be helping students fix their schedules, printing tens of papers for a course in the department, or handling emails and messages between the department and the university.
When asked if she would do it all over again, giving 24 years of her life to Birzeit University, she said, “This university has become a part of me, and I can never imagine my life without it. I love everything about it, its students, professors, trees, and places. The spirit of Birzeit has permeated my every living thought, and much like an olive tree without water, I too would wither away without being at the university and living in its atmosphere.”
We all hear the axiom that says disabilities should never hold back people from doing what they love, usually followed by a mention of a role model or an exemplar who defied the challenges and made their dreams a reality. In the university’s case, that exemplar is Wafa Darwish.
An English professor since 1994, Wafa Darwish overcame her visual impairment and made a name for herself as an authority on English literature. This is a difficult undertaking for anyone, let alone someone who is fighting an uphill battle. But, true to her reputation as someone who does not take no for an answer, Wafa persevered and was able to advance her career and engage with her students in an open, supportive academic atmosphere.
“Birzeit University is my life’s work. For me, it represents legacy, intellectualism, and family. Birzeit University is us, pure and simple. The place accepted me as I am, afforded me the opportunity to teach, and supported me in advancing my career,” said Wafa.
“Birds of a feather flock together,” the saying goes. In the Department of English Language and Literature’s case, the saying should be “Those who persevere in the face of hardships tend to band together.” Much like Wafa challenged, and overcame, her visual impairment, Grace challenged and overcame something far more sinister, a breast cancer diagnosis.
An employee at Birzeit University since 1997, Grace first started as a secretary in the Department of Languages and Translation. After some seven years, she decided to see if the grass was truly greener on the other side of the English Language fence and started as a secretary in the Department of English Language and Literature.
If you’ve spent any amount of time at Birzeit University, you might get the feeling that it’s a big family. And if you’ve met Grace, you will know why. To her, everyone is a son, daughter, or a “habibi” or “habibti” [darling]. You’re greeted with the same amount of love and warmth whether you’re a stranger or a childhood friend.
Part of that is just Grace reflecting back what love and support she has received from her colleagues and fellow employees over the years. “What truly helped me during the rough times that I went through is the compassion and support from my colleagues here at the department. It’s true that there were some good times and some bad times during my 21 years here, but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”
“I’ve always been in love with Birzeit University. I could not stay away from the atmosphere and the vibrant environment,” said Maisa. After a 14-year stint at her family’s company, Burbar Jerusalem for Stone & Marble, she decided to return to the place where she found happiness, joy and liveliness.
Whether as a lecturer in the Department of Business Administration or a faculty advisor in the Faculty of Business and Economics, Maisa has always maintained a friendly relationship with the students and fellow faculty members.
Now, Maisa divides her time in the university between lecturing and assisting the vice president for administrative and financial affairs. "I am able to transfer what I learn to my students. I provide them with real-life scenarios and events and try to reconcile the practical with the theoretical,” she added.
Maisa does not believe in inculcation. For her, the education process is one where both student and instructor play a role in the production of knowledge. “We have to rise up to, and overcome, the challenges of the 21st century. This is an ever-changing world where new concepts and technologies are created every day, and it is our job as instructors and teachers to prepare our students for a future in which they will constitute a big part of this surge of advancement and innovation.”
Some of us have a natural sense of friendliness. A smile automatically appears on their faces whenever they meet someone, and they would go above and beyond to help anyone who seems just slightly downhearted. To students and faculty members of the Department of Media, and more recently to anyone who visits the Institute of Environmental and Water Studies, that person is Sawsan Sayej.
Sawsan, a 20-year veteran of Birzeit University, is currently the administrative and financial coordinator at the institute. There she helps postgraduate students and faculty members with a big smile and an even bigger heart.
She became attached to Birzeit University, she says, not only because of its atmosphere or its wonderful family of colleagues and co-workers but also because of the students’ energy and enthusiasm. “I cannot spend a single day away from this atmosphere and this liveliness. Even on my days off, I start counting down the hours until it’s a workday,” she said.
When asked about her fondest memory during her time here at Birzeit, Sawsan said that it was the time when a student came up to her and said that she majored in Media just because of her. “It was, and still is, a badge of honor that I wear every day. To know that I’ve made a difference in a young student’s life and guided them to what they love is a dream come true, and I hope I can help more and more students,” Sawsan added.
The administrative assistant to the dean of the Faculty of Science, Iman is the focal point between the university, dean, faculty members, and students. Her life, for the past 26 years, has been revolving around the helping the students and faculty members achieve academic excellence and standout among the best of the best.
Iman says that, when she first began at the university, she never thought she would spend as much time as she did here. What kept her attached are “the colleagues who became like family, even more so.” She sometimes spends more time at her the university than at her home, and so it’s only natural to think of her co-workers as family.
Dr. Khalid Swaileh, dean of the Faculty of Science, heaped praise upon Iman when he saw her being interviewed. Iman, he says, is so dedicated to her job that he never saw her take a lunch break. “She is great at her job. The faculty would have never turned out as it did if it were not for her great efforts and commitment,” he added.
“Birzeit is not my second, but my first home. I wish it more and more success. It has always been a bastion of academic excellence, and I hope it will keep being the top destination for the very best of students and professors.”
Majida has held many positions over her 28-year career at Birzeit University, and she has been integral to the success of every department and office she has ever been a part of. Her journey began when she, along with 150 other applicants, applied for an administrative assistant job at the Finance Department in the Faculty of Business and Economics.
A couple of years later, she transferred to the Department of Business Administration and then to the Executive Master’s of Business Administration Program where she currently juggles helping postgraduate students and faculty members and coordinating with the university’s various components.
Majida is well-known for her wits and intelligence. When Ritaj (the university’s online portal) was created, she was asked to participate in an ad hoc, functional team created to ascertain the advantages and disadvantages of establishing the portal.
“Birzeit University has always been there for me. I’ve met some very wonderful people and made lifelong friendships here. It’s my family and my home. We are all Birzeit, and Birzeit is us.”