The social scientist who inadvertently became a poet
At the age of thirteen Mona Jebril found herself stranded in Gaza, becoming a refugee for the second time in her life. Her talent and determination brought her to Cambridge where she became the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from the Gaza Strip. She completed her PhD in education in 2017. Today she is using the arts to give a voice to those in areas of conflict.
I never saw daffodils in Gaza — or if I did, I don’t remember them. But I’d studied William Wordsworth’s poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, so I knew — in theory at least — what they were like. It was only when I came to Queens’ College that I saw them for myself. Walking in the gardens, a line from Wordsworth’s poem came to mind: And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.
My father used to say, “English is a window looking over the world.” He specialised in English Language and Literature and encouraged my five siblings and I to do the same. In turn we enrolled at the English Department of Al Azhar University in Gaza, each becoming top of our class. Our teachers called us the “English Empire.”
At home lively debates would erupt about linguistics or schools of philosophy or literary connotations and denotations. It was a special atmosphere and served as a respite from the daily struggles of life under occupation. Later when I was asked why I’d applied for a scholarship in the UK I answered, “because it’s the home of Shakespeare.”
I grew up in Kuwait, where my father worked as a translator at the Ministry of Higher Education, and my mother worked as a maths teacher. We had a piano and a library with a big encyclopaedia which my father loved to read. Classical music (another passion of my father’s) was often heard around the house.
Despite the happiness in our home a shadow lay across our lives. I was born into a refugee family. I grew up listening to stories of loss and displacement from my father and grandmother. They were originally from Jaffa but had been unable to return due to Israeli occupation. Unbeknown to me, history would soon repeat itself.
When I was 13 years old, we travelled to Gaza to visit family during the summer holidays. We planned to stay for one month but on the second day of our visit, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. We heard the news on the radio, the date was 2 August 1990.
We had no choice but to stay in Gaza. I became a refugee for the second time in my life. I never had a chance to say goodbye to my friends. To this day I have not returned.
Life took an unexpected turn. I grew used to seeing military jeeps on the side of the street. Girls married young, at 12 or 13 years old. But my parents were adamant that my education was of the greatest importance — they knew from experience that even if you lost everything you still carried your education within you.
I felt a deep responsibility to protect my education and dreams. After my undergraduate degree I went on to teach. While teaching I was nominated to act as a trainer of novice teachers by the Gaza Directorate of Education. Later I won a Saïd Foundation Scholarship to study for an MSc in Higher Education at the University of Oxford.
I was the first scholar from Gaza to win a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. My PhD focused on exploring the past, present and future experiences of those studying and working in higher education while living under occupation in the Gaza Strip. Studying something so personal could, at times, be very difficult and emotive — it almost felt like I was studying myself.
One day when I was struggling with my thesis, I remembered that I used to enjoy painting when I was a child in Kuwait. I went out and bought a little painting kit and the next time I felt overwhelmed I took it out and began to paint. I didn’t even know what I was painting and certainly didn’t see myself as an artist. I was just enjoying experimenting with colours.
Since I’m a thinking type, each time I finished a picture, I’d put it on the wall and ponder what it meant. After a while I began to see parallels between the picture and the stage I was at with my research. To my surprise and pleasure, I was able to add these paintings to the appendix of my thesis. And happily, in the end, I passed with no corrections.
For the past few years, I’ve been working as a research fellow at the Centre for Business Research which sits within Cambridge Judge Business School. I’ve been part of a consortium of academics from all over the world investigating the impact of conflict on health in the Middle East and North Africa. I’ve specifically focused on the political economy of health in the Gaza Strip.
During this time, I discovered Creative Encounters, a public engagement initiative run by the University, which provides artistic workshops to academics. The idea was to give academics the skills to be able to share their research findings using artistic mediums like drama, poetry, animation or photography. Supported by Creative Encounters, I produced animations about my work and even wrote a play which was staged in 2021.
I rediscovered a love of poetry which had been in hibernation for many years. I didn’t find it difficult to write — I’d be walking along, and the lines just seemed to flow out of me. I began translating themes from my research into poems. For example, The Gaza Billiard Game was about the competing political agendas of healthcare in Gaza and Living in Multiple Sieges was about the mental health of females in Gaza. I even started to express personal things through poetry — I found myself penning a few lines in celebration of a friend’s birthday or I’d write rhyming couplets in replies to emails.
A photograph and a poem inspired by my research will be featured in the upcoming Creative Encounters exhibition, which forms part of the Cambridge Festival. While my empirical research cannot capture the anger, frustration and the tears of the people of Gaza, I hope that my words and art can be a voice for them. Although the subject matter may be traumatic, there is something about the arts which brings a lightness and beauty, and within this lightness and beauty lies hope.
Visit the free Creative Encounters Exhibition (Monday 4th April — Saturday 9th April) and meet the researchers involved at the panel discussion (Saturday 9th April, 3:00pm-4:30pm).
Queens’ College alumna Dr Mona Jebril is a research fellow at the Centre for Business Research at the Cambridge Judge Business School. She is working as part of the Global Challenge Research Fund project: Research for Health in Conflict (R4HC-MENA): Developing capability, partnerships and research in the Middle East and North Africa. Previously Mona worked as a lecturer, firstly at the University of Palestine and then at Al-Azhar University, both located in the Gaza Strip. She graduated from her MSc in Oxford with distinction and also won a Said Foundation Prize for Academic and Personal Achievement.
Published 25 March 2022
With thanks to:
Cambridge Judge Business School
The text in this work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License