Belfast Telegraph

The Queen's University academic who couldn't read or count as a child

By Una Brankin

An academic at Queen's University in Belfast has given an extraordinary insight into how she overcame a deprived background to become a lecturer.

In an interview to be broadcast on the Vinny Hurrell show on Radio Ulster tonight, Professor Beverley Milton-Edwards, who lectures in the politics department, talks about her tough childhood growing up "in a one-parent household" with "the stigma of being the only child in the line for free school lunches".

She said: "We had no heat; no electricity. My younger brother and I had to fend for ourselves as my mother suffered severe mental illness and was not around, since I was three or four. I was in a remedial class.

"My reports said I'd have no future; that I'd struggle. I wasn't literate; I couldn't do sums. I left secondary school with four O levels.

"I think that sort of childhood messes you up and leaves you with insecurities and you don't really trust the world. You have to rely on yourself and be strong - not just for me but for my brother, too. I had to look after him.

"It's so sad I had to be so tough - I had a hard shell at 25. Growing up, I was very rebellious and very strong willed.

"Last week I asked my baby brother, as I call him, 'Can you remember me at 25?'

"He said, 'Yes, you were tough and mixed up. A real handful'."

Professor Milton-Edwards said that it had taken a long time for success to come. "It's a real cliché but when you come from nothing, the only way is up. My children say to me that I've made a real success of failure - I couldn't even pass my cycling proficiency test when I was young."

The academic also revealed how she had spent a great deal of her life in refugee camps.

At the age of 25 she was living on the Gaza strip.

"[I was staying with] friends of mine," she says. "The eldest in the family was a 15-year-old daughter, Hanaan. They lived in a breeze block one-room tin-roofed shelter. It was the time of the first infatada imposed by the Israelis, so there were nightly curfews and frequent raids, and people arrested and taken away.

"The father of the family was a really poor teacher in one of schools. He'd been attacked and had acid thrown at him by Muslim fundamentalists while he was studying at university. So there was all this trauma in the house while I was there, doing research for my PhD.

"The mother suffered from depression and the father had great ambitions for his daughter to carry on with her studies, but he became so suspicious of everything, all he wanted to do was marry her off.

"The family lived on food donations from the UN relief agency. I remember, ironically, food coming from Hungary - tins of bacon and lentils, and they couldn't eat it as they were Muslim. I'd decided to study this group that had just emerged, Hamas, and from then on undertook scholarship of sheer bloody-mindedness. It took me days, weeks, months to arrange interviews with Hamas and Islamic leaders, and Palestinian Jihadis."

Despite those daunting experiences, Professor Milton-Edwards says the first time she was "really scared" was in 1989. "There was a social campaign against women in Gaza by Islamic fundamentalists and others, to make them wear the hijab. I took a stand with my Palestinian girlfriends, not to wear one. I was spat at, called a w****; a prostitute.

"But I was standing next to my girlfriends and I had the choice to be there, and the luxury to leave when I wanted, but I couldn't do that to these brave, wonderful women who are still my friends today."

She added: "My students don't believe me when I say I'd never have been able to get into a university like Queen's. But adolescent anger is a strong driver. Looking back, I'd tell myself not to take life quite so seriously. Enjoy ride and remember, it's all a journey."

The Vinny Hurrell Show, Radio Ulster, tonight, 10.10pm

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