Vigil for Dima Alhaj at Glasgow University cloisters. Credit: Athina Bohner

Glasgow University students mourn the killing of alumni Dima Alhaj in Gaza

As the community mourns the killing of UofG alumni Dima Alhaj in Gaza, her relatives share heartfelt memories of the young WHO staff member.

On Monday, 27 November, over a hundred University of Glasgow students and members of the public attended a candle-light vigil in the cloisters to honour the memory of Dima Alhaj.

Dima Alhaj was a 29-year-old former Masters student at the University of Glasgow in 2018/19, who worked for the World Health Organisation (WHO) since December 2019. As a patient administrator at the Limb Reconstruction Centre, she worked with the WHO Trauma and Emergency Team in Gaza. She was killed alongside her husband and 5-month old baby by an airstrike in Gaza on 21 November 2023.

Dima’s cousin Alaa Alhaj, who moved to Glasgow around the same time as Dima, also attended the vigil. He remembers his cousin as “always smiling” and told the crowd: “I lost one of my best friends.” Recalling Dima’s studies at the University of Glasgow as part of the Erasmus exchange programme, Alaa said: “She was so grateful for a chance to change her future.” He added: “[Dima] came [back] to Gaza full of dreams, full of life” and realised that “now we are speaking in the past tense about my cousin.”

Recalling the night his uncle’s house was hit by the airstrike, Alaa was awakened by the sound of phone notifications, informing him of the tragedy. He said: “I tried to calm myself [down] and asked: ‘Is [the house] fully destroyed?’ And they said: ‘It’s in the ground. Three floors in the ground’”. Over the following days, dozens of his family members were retrieved from under the rubble. Dima’s cousin Alaa said: “I remember that place. That is my family, that is my uncle’s house. All the family was sleeping.”

Roseann Maguire, a research associate at the University of Glasgow, also spoke fondly of Dima, as her family hosted the Palestinian student for two months in 2018. Speaking to the crowd of mourners, Roseann remembered Dima as a “wonderful, vibrant, young woman” and said it was “an absolute tragedy that her life was taken so cruelly and so young”.

Recalling their first meeting in August 2018, Roseann told The Glasgow Guardian: “Dima’s smile lit up the room.” During her time in Glasgow, the pair formed a special bond, adding that Dima “called us her second family”. With a bittersweet expression, Roseann spoke of treasured memories with Dima, including a rainy boat ride on Loch Lomond and the time when Dima tried learning how to ride a bike.

The research associate told The Glasgow Guardian: “I go from deep sadness to absolute fury that the world did not call for a ceasefire. I am so angry with academic institutions for not standing up.” In the last text message Roseann received from Dima, the new mother hoped that “Abood, my little boy, lives to see better days”.

Roseann Maguire feels that “it was an absolute privilege for us to host her. As much as it brings me sadness, I would do it again in the blink of an eye.” She had hoped to travel to Gaza next year in order to visit Dima and meet her baby Abood.

Dima

Credit: World Health Organisation

Philippa Whitford, Member of Parliament for Central Ayrshire, worked as a consultant breast surgeon and a medical volunteer at a UN hospital in Gaza for two years. Addressing the crowd in the cloisters, she spoke of the “exhausted and traumatised” healthcare workers in Gaza. At least 220 healthcare workers have been killed in Gaza over the past seven weeks. The SNP MP also called for a permanent ceasefire.

Referring to Dima’s father Dr. Abdelatif Alhaj as her “very good friend of over 30 years,” Philippa Whitford recalled her personal connection to Dima’s family. Dr. Abdelatif Alhaj is a senior consultant general surgeon and taught at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) medical school. IUG is one of the University of Glasgow’s partner universities.

Visibly emotional, the MP read aloud one of the last messages Abdelatif sent her: “I’m in deep pain, Phillipa. I lost my son Majd, his wife, and two of his children. My lovely daughter Dima – a WHO staff member – her husband, and her 5-month child. My little son Omar, 17 years. Only my wife Aya and our little daughter Lama are saved alive. I was at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, but over 45 persons, women, men, and children, were killed in my house – most of them still under the rubble. They were sheltering in my house, escaping from killing.”

Dr. Ibrahim Khadra, the chair of the Palestinian Community Scotland, also addressed the crowd, saying: “We have many Dimas. […] This is our story”. Dr. Ibrahim, whose children study at the University of Glasgow, said that he has lost over 72 family members since the outbreak of war on October 7. 

Gerry O’Hare, the husband of Roseann Maguire, said he developed a close relationship with Dima’s family, as he worked with her father in Gaza. As a cancer nurse in Glasgow, he has worked with Medical Aid for Palestine (MAP) for the past 12 years to support breast cancer management. Gerry said: “Gaza can be quite a difficult place, but I immediately felt at home”. He is looking forward to returning to Gaza in the future to “rebuild what is left of the health service, which is virtually nothing”.

To pay their respects, some Glasgow University students participated in a prayer as part of the vigil. A number of students placed flowers on a banner of Dima and collected donations for MAP.

Glasgow University student Henry, 20, who attended the gathering, feels that the vigil was to honour Dima, “but it’s also for everyone else [who has been killed in Gaza]. We’re here for them as a show of humanity.”

As of 29 November 2023, the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 15,000 and over 1.7 million people in Gaza have been internally displaced. War broke out on 7 October 2023, after militant group Hamas attacked Israel, killing around 1,200 people and kidnapping 240 hostages.

Some Glasgow University students who attended the vigil told The Glasgow Guardian that they feel disappointed by what they perceive as the University’s limited response to Dima’s death. One UofG student said: “We hope that [University management] are able to honour her properly, in the same way that [Dima] honoured them, by being proud to be a student here.”

On November 21, a tweet by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus drew international attention to the death of Dima Alhaj. He wrote: “My colleagues and I are devastated: we have lost one of our own in Gaza today […] I have no words to describe our grief.”

Anton Muscatelli, the University’s Vice Chancellor, retweeted the post and added: “This is one utterly tragic news story in the midst of thousands of similar stories of grief and despair. Dima was an Erasmus student in University of Glasgow a few years ago—the WHO [Director General’s] message says it all. We share their grieving for one of our own. Ceasefire and release hostages now.”

As of yet, the University has not released an official statement on Dima’s death, instead retweeting the Vice Chancellor’s post with a single broken heart emoji.

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