Refaat Alareer set us a hard task: to find hope

Refaat Alareer during a visit to Philadelphia. (Yousef Aljamal)

It was the final lecture in the course on William Shakespeare.

Our teacher Dr. Refaat Alareer started talking about the upcoming exam. In one question, we would be asked to write about a thought-provoking matter, he said.

Dr. Refaat’s exams were never direct or simple. So I thought the question he was referring to would be the hardest task he would ever give us.

On 7 December – the date when we heard about Dr. Refaat’s assassination – I realized that I was wrong.

Dr. Refaat Alareer was one of the most brilliant people you could ever meet. He was also one of the funniest.

I took four courses with him but it was not enough.

I was delighted that I had enrolled to take another course with him. By assassinating Dr. Refaat, Israel has taken away this delight.

When I was in high school, I wished that I could have an extraordinary teacher like the ones we see in movies. A teacher like John Keating in Dead Poets Society or Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers.

Dr. Refaat made my wish come true.

During this current war, he was incredibly busy and weighed down with the responsibility of securing water, food and shelter for his family.

He was always searching for internet access. That involved navigating perilous paths amid the exploding bombs to write, translate and share Palestinian stories.

He believed that storytelling is a strong act of resistance.

Yet he would still find the time to check on me and my fellow students, as well as our families, and ask if we needed anything.


Dr. Refaat gave us the courage to stand for what we believe in and the courage to question and change our beliefs simultaneously. He encouraged us to express our opinions, even if he didn’t agree with them.

He taught us to be truly free.

He was one of the best listeners I’ve ever met.

Speaking to him might have left you slightly bewildered if you were unaccustomed to such attentiveness. He listened to you as if you were the most important, talented or smartest student.

He would never provide you with a direct answer.

When you asked him a question, he would often reply with another question. “What do you think?” or something like that.

He would engage with your thoughts graciously, even if they were naive or if they seemed to be nonsense. He believed that each one of us had a unique perspective that was worth sharing and writing about.

If Dr. Refaat described your work as “good” or “beautiful,” you should have considered it a noteworthy achievement. He was a discerning evaluator, saving praise only for work that truly met his high standards.

We knew we were blessed to have him as a teacher.

At times when my friend Deema and I had a free hour in our lecture schedule, we would check if Dr. Refaat was conducting a lecture at that moment, and we would attend it. Regardless of the subject matter, listening to Dr. Refaat would ignite our intellect, refresh our spirit and make us laugh.

Now – because of the continuous telecommunications cuts which Israel is imposing – Deema and I are unable to mourn together. Israel has even taken that from us.

The overwhelming mix of sadness and anger clouds my recollection of specific warm memories.

Just one week before his martyrdom, I sent Dr. Refaat my translation of his poem “Drenched” and asked him if the translation was good enough to be shared. He read it and he told me it was excellent.

That made me beam from ear to ear.

He told me to post it on Twitter so that he could repost it.

Facing the challenge

It was the first time Dr. Refaat shared on his personal account something I had translated. Now that I’m working on translating another poem by him, it kills me that he is no longer here to read it and discuss it with me.

When he was assassinated, my family tried to console me by saying he’s in a better place now.

“What about me?” I asked. “Who will read my translations from now on? With whom can I share the joy of getting published or writing a poem or a story?”

His absence is deeply felt and I still yearn for the support and connection he provided.

When Dr.Refaat was alive, I never had the nerve to translate his poem “If I Must Die.” It was incredibly hard for me to picture him dying, to accept the fact that he could be killed.

He consistently urged us to write. Yet every attempt left me feeling vulnerable, so I gave up on writing completely.

Before his assassination, the idea of penning and sharing these words would have been far beyond my comfort zone. But here I am, writing about him and for him.

Even in his physical absence, Dr. Refaat continues to push me to grow and step outside my comfort zone.

“If I Must Die” was the poem he wished everyone to remember him through. It was pinned on his Twitter account.

The last part of the poem reads:

If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale

This task proves to be the hardest and most challenging.

How on earth, Dr. Refaat, can we find hope in your demise? How do we persist in telling your tale when you are no longer here to guide and inspire us?

It’s an immensely difficult endeavor. But it is a challenge we will face, like you taught us, with unwavering determination.

Dr. Refaat’s words echo in our hearts, urging us to find hope even in the face of tragedy and to continue weaving his tale like a tapestry.

The difficulty of the task only amplifies our commitment to honor his legacy, ensuring that his words resonate eternally, bringing hope and inspiration to those who carry on his work.

Nour Nemer is a student and translator in Gaza.