Tala Shurrab (G20) was born and raised in Gaza. During the course of 2014 her life changed when her father lost his job and she experienced three military assaults, one of which destroyed her family home.
In spite of these enormous challenges Tala excelled at school and was offered a scholarship to study for one year in the USA. It was the opportunity of a lifetime but when she arrived in the US she was haunted by flashbacks and persistent nightmares because of the trauma she had experienced. Encouraged to seek help from a counsellor – a course of action that would have been considered taboo in her home country – the support she received helped her to understand and cope with her symptoms, and she made up her mind to study Psychology.
Tala secured a scholarship to study Psychology in Lebanon at the Lebanese America University where she studied for four years to complete her undergraduate degree, spending her final year as a research assistant. She planned to return home afterwards, but a chance conversation with a friend alerted her to the existence of the Palestinian Studentship at Churchill and the chance it offered to continue with postgraduate studies at Cambridge. Tala applied, and there then followed an extraordinary roller-coaster journey beginning with the offer of a place at Cambridge in January 2020. Tala may have had an offer to study at Cambridge, but she had to secure the Studentship, pass the English language proficiency test and get the necessary visas required. She also had a pandemic to contend with and borders closing throughout the region.
Tala managed to travel from Lebanon to Jordan to reach the Jordan International Office but the next day the borders between Jordan and Gaza were closed, and she was stuck in the country for two months. It was whilst she was in Jordan that she received the news that she had been awarded the Palestinian Studentship which is joint funded by Churchill College and the Cambridge Commonwealth European & International Trust (CCEIT). The Studentship would cover the £28,000 course fees and maintenance costs for Tala’s MPhil in Psychology and Education, and she couldn’t quite believe the opportunity she had been given.
When I first received the news, I was in shock at first. I thought it was a mistake and didn’t process it until several days later. I simply couldn’t believe that only one person from Palestine could be offered the funding and that person was me.
However, nothing was to come easily because she discovered she was two marks short of the English language proficiency pass mark required to accept the offer. Undeterred, Tala emailed the Admissions office and managed to sit for an alternative English exam provided by Cambridge. On the night of the 1st September – her birthday – she finally received confirmation of her place. At this point Tala was back at home in Gaza with the borders firmly closed on both sides of the country. Not only that, but the visa centres in Gaza were also closed and her only chance was to try and make it to Egypt in the hope she could apply for her visa there. At the beginning of October she saw on Facebook that the border with Egypt was due to open the following week so she made her way to the Travel Agency to get her name on the list to cross but was advised it would be impossible – she needed to have put her name down on the travel list in January. Feeling sure that she had missed her chance, Tala stopped looking at the emails from Cambridge, but luck intervened again. Someone at the Agency had heard her story and Tala received a phone call advising that her name had been added to the list and she could travel the next day. Joining her aunt in Egypt, she was finally able to apply for a visa, which she received in five days.
Tala finally arrived at Churchill in October 2020 and felt at home from her first day thanks to the friendliness of the community. She is living in postgraduate accommodation in 76 Storey’s Way and particularly values the space and quietness of the College grounds. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and can’t wait to explore Cambridge and more widely the UK!
Tala’s course is half taught and half research based, and her interests are around trauma, resilience and education. She is still not sure exactly what she will do when her current studies are over, but she knows she wants to be able to make a difference and offer something practical to her home community. For the time-being she is looking forward to her year at Churchill and feels incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to come here through the Studentship.
I think that many of those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are extremely creative and great problem solvers, but they can be over-looked or feel the opportunities available are not open to someone like them. After I received my Studentship, fifteen of my friends in Gaza contacted me to find out more – they now have the courage to apply and I only wish that more funding could be made available so they can also access the incredible opportunities available here at Churchill and Cambridge.