LAHORE: As protesters began to gather at Lahore’s Liberty Chowk on the 17th of May, there was one group that stood out. Draped in Palestinian flags standing huddled under the shade of a tree, they spoke rapidly in Arabic as people continued to filter in.
The first protest at Liberty Chowk was not organized by any collectives. It was the response of the general public to calls for a demonstration made on social media, so when the crowds began to swell despite the punishing May heat, they looked for someone to lead them. It was then that this group of young Palestinian students, with great skill and fervor, stepped up and rallied the protesters, raising slogans and leading them in a march around Liberty Chowk.
“We start protesting the day that we are born. Our entire lives are spent struggling and fighting against the oppressive regime that is trying to commit genocide against us,” said one of the Palestinians leading the protest. “Generations of ours have spent lifetimes resisting, and we will continue to do so no matter where in the world we are.” They requested not to be named.
At the next protest two days later, organized in front of the American Consulate in Lahore by the Insaf Student Federation, they were there again, and this time the crowds recognised them. When Zubair Niazi, the PTI MNA candidate from NA 125, climbed a container and attempted to give a speech to the crowd, he was heckled off. “Let our Palestinian brothers speak, this is not a political rally” came the voices from the crowd. And at every subsequent protest, whether they have been arranged by a political party, leftist organizations, or progressive collectives, these Palestinians have been there. They have shown up and galvanized the crowds.
“We have been in Pakistan for many years now, some of us for decades,” Rashad Ayaydah tells Pakistan Today. “People are turning out to protest, and we are grateful for this support and happy to be heard. But this cannot stop any time soon, you must keep showing up to protests, you must keep raising your voice on social media. This is critical.”
Rashad is from the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank, and he is in Pakistan to study medicine. “We have found a second home in Pakistan, and the people here always express great love for Palestine and the Palestinian people. But now we need that love transformed into actions. We need boycotts and as much noise on social media as possible. These are our most important tools in this fight.”
Rashad Ayaydah, from Hebron in the West Bank, carries the Palestinian flag outside the American Consulate in Lahore.
Rashad’s story is similar to thousands of Palestinian students that over the decades have come to Pakistan for higher education on scholarships given by the Pakistan government. Earlier this year in March, Science and Technology minister Fawad Chaudhry, in a meeting with Palestinian Ambassador to Pakistan, Ahmed Rabei, offered 50 scholarships for Palestinian students to study in Pakistani universities within the ministry’s remit. Rabei thanked the minister for the offer, pledged five million Palestinian olive saplings to Pakistan in support of the country’s tree plantation campaign, and noted that some 50,000 Palestinian students have already graduated from educational institutions in Pakistan and used the skills to contribute to the development of Palestine.
A large number of these Palestinian students come to study medicine because there is a dire need for more doctors in Palestine, particularly in the Gaza strip where Israeli attacks on civilian areas are the most deadly because of a a 14-year-long blockade that prevents freedom of movement, causes dire supply and equipment shortages and hinders medical advancement.
“There are very few doctors in Palestine as it is, but then every time the Israeli government carpet bombs our homes and our cities, they target hospitals and medical centers and kill the doctors that we do have” another Palestinian medical student at the protest told us. The wounds were fresh when we spoke to this student, as only a day before in an early morning missile attack in the al-Wehda district of Gaza, Dr Ayman Abu al-Ouf, head of internal medicine at Al-Shifa hospital and one of Palestine’s most senior and well respected doctors, was killed along with members of his family on Sunday, the day before the protest. The same attack also killed Dr Mooein Ahmad al-Aloul, a 66-year-old psychiatric neurologist. The day after the protest, another targeted Israeli airstrike severely damaged the only coronavirus testing center in Gaza.
Most of the Palestinians studying medicine in Pakistan will go back to Palestine and serve their people on the front lines as doctors. If the Israeli government’s continued attacks do not end, they may very well end up in the line of fire trying to defend their people and heal the injured. But it is not just doctors that come to Pakistan for training, there are others that come to learn computer science, engineering, as well as English – all so that one day they can return to Palestine and in some way contribute to the resistance against Israel’s apartheid regime.
A group of Palestinian students make victory signs at the first protest at Liberty Chowk.
“Some of us have been here for as long as a decade. Palestinian students have been coming to Pakistan for much, much, longer. And we want this consistent support to continue,” says Tareq Ibrahim from Gaza. “There can be no talk of normalization of relations between Pakistan and Israel until there is normalization for us. It is out of the question,” he says.
“What we need is people to boycott Israeli products. We need them to show up. We need them to promote our social media so that our voices can be heard all around the world. This is what we need. This is what you can do to help our cause,” he ended.