My name is Ayman Qwaider. I am 27 years old and I was born and raised in the Gaza Strip. I was lucky to study in Spain and I now live in Australia with my wife, Sameeha, who was recently awarded a PhD Scholarship in Perth. I am currently studying for a PhD on education policies and social reform. Our dream to pursue higher education became true after facing huge hurdles. But many other Palestinian students from Gaza are still dreaming and will likely never see their dreams come true.
The Gaza Strip (378 km²) lies on the Mediterranean coast and is part of Palestine. It borders Israel to the east and north and Egypt to the south. The estimated population is 1.8 million, 65% of whom are thought to be under 25. There are over a million UN-registered refugees, the majority of whom live in refugee camps distributed across Gaza. I myself was raised in the alleys of the Nuseirat Refugee Camp.
In Gaza, the Israeli occupation authorities maintain tight control over all aspects of daily life. Since 2007, a hermetic blockade has been imposed by Egypt and Israel, restricting not only the movement of goods but also of people. This restriction on Palestinian’s freedom of movement impacts the enjoyment of our human rights including the right to education.
In light of the 7-year-long ongoing blockade on Gaza, the quality of education services has been severely undermined. Educational facilities are in bad shape. Educational equipment, including new books, cannot be imported affecting the quality of education delivered to students in Gaza. In addition, the education authorities in Gaza, as well other concerned international agencies find it difficult to invest in the construction of new schools or repairing damaged schools facilities as Israel continues to ban the entry of construction materials to Gaza. This crisis has been further compounded by two Israeli military operations carried out in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 and December 2012. Over 280 schools were either totally destroyed or partially damaged during Operation Cast Lead and are yet to be reconstructed or repaired. A large number of these schools lack toilets, proper running water, electricity and equipment for classrooms like desks, chairs, textbooks and even ink. According to the Ministry of Education in Gaza, about 80% of schools in Gaza operate on a shift system to accommodate the growing number of students.
Border restrictions also prevent the movement of Gazan students and academic staff to and from Gaza. Teaching staff cannot travel for training outside of Gaza and foreign academics cannot enter Gaza leading to negative impacts on the quality of education. Long before the 2007 blockade, since the eruption of the second Intifada in 2000, the recruitment of foreign academics has shrunk. Consequently, Palestinian students do not have the opportunity to be exposed to diverse perspectives and new ways of thinking, and as a result the research capacities of students and academic staff have been undermined.
Furthermore, the restriction of students’ freedom of movement impacts the enjoyment of their right to higher education. There are four main universities in Gaza however, a number of degrees are not offered by these universities. These degrees are available in the West Bank or in universities overseas, however the restriction of freedom of movement means that Gazan students are de facto denied the right to choose what they study. In addition, universities in Gaza only offer a limited number of postgraduate degrees.
University students in Gaza face an extreme situation of isolation, as it is almost impossible for them to leave Gaza to pursue higher education at West Bank universities or abroad. The Israeli occupation policy of separation between the once-unified Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) has made further education practically inaccessible. In order for a Palestinian student to enter the West Bank, permits have to be requested from the Israeli occupation authorities. These permits are only issued for limited categories of people such us humanitarian aid workers linked to international organisations. These permits are also limited to a particular period of time - days rather than weeks. In 2012, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that between 2000 and 2012, only three Palestinian students from Gaza were allowed to study at universities in the West Bank, in all three cases this was due to intervention by the US government because they were granted scholarships by the US government.
The restriction of freedom of movement is a profound obstacle facing Palestinian students in Gaza. In 2010, I was granted a full scholarship financed by Bancaja-Caja Castellón Foundation, to pursue a Master’s degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies at the University of Jaume in Spain - a degree not available in Gaza's universities.
Despite having all the required papers including a university acceptance letter, a student visa to Spain, and flight tickets, I was unable to get out of Gaza - like several hundred other scholarship students. The Master’s degree programme began without me. I requested support from official channels such as the Spanish embassies in Cairo and Tel-Aviv, Amnesty International and even the European Parliament. All of these attempts failed. Social media was my last chance to claim my right to education.
I wrote a blog post, entitled “I have a dream”, raising a fundamental question: Why am I deprived of my basic right, the right to education? I also mobilised people using Facebook and an online petition, and started a media campaign with the support of the Tel-Aviv Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement (Gisha) which attempts to legally support Palestinians demanding their right of movement to and from Gaza. The blog post, which was later picked up by the main Spain News Agency in the Middle East, resulted in countless articles in the local Spanish press. The human rights based media campaign eventually bore fruit and pressured the Israeli occupation authorities to issue me a transit permit to travel from Gaza to Spain, passing though Israel to fly from Amman International Airport. I was fortunate to use my skills and networks to exit Gaza, however hundreds of students are left behind, unable to exercise their basic right to education due to the ongoing closure of Gaza's borders.
Four years later, in April 2014, the same thing happened again. My wife, Sameeha Olwan, was granted a scholarship to pursue a PhD in comparative literature and creative writing in Australia, and I had to complete further research for my PhD. Although Sameeha and I had all the required documents and visas to leave Gaza, crossing the borders was once again a major challenge. Again, we appealed to Gisha to support our case; however, both of us were refused permits with no particular reason listed for this refusal. Consequently, with the support of an Australian journalist friend, we were able to appeal to the Australian consulate to intervene in our case. Bureaucratic procedures are obstacles almost all students in Gaza have to face while applying for permits to pass through checkpoints.
The opportunity to study outside Gaza has introduced me to a different and more open world. It also has allowed me to share my personal and professional experiences with classmates who come from diverse cultures and countries. Moreover, studying abroad has given me the chance to experience different styles of education, which I would never have been exposed to at home due to the vast restrictions on education in Gaza. Studying abroad is also about self-development and self-exploration. All of this should eventually support me in playing a more constructive role in my community. It is fundamental for the development of Gaza that its students can fully enjoy their right to education.
Sameeha and I were fortunate to be two of the students who managed to leave Gaza to pursue further education; however, hundreds of students are still behind borders and checkpoints in Gaza, deprived of their right to freedom of movement and thus, their right to education.
Ayman Qwaider, 27, was born and raised in the Gaza Strip. Ayman completed an International Master’s in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies in Spain. He now lives in Australia with his wife, Sameeha, who was recently awarded a PhD Scholarship in Perth, Australia. Ayman is currently doing his PhD research on education policies and social reform.