May 16, 2024

Student Escapes from Gaza

[The two stories in this blog by and about two Palestinian Fulbright Scholars are taken from my book, Letters from Palestine.  Both stories refer to the three-week long war in Gaza that broke out toward the end of 2008.  As horrific as that war was, can you imagine how infinitely worse it is now for people, including would-be university students, who are currently living and dying in Gaza, in a war that has aroused such protests throughout the world? And it’s not just potential university students whose dreams of higher education have been thwarted by this war.  According to PBS, 625,000 Gazan children have also been deprived of their education.  Of course, the thousands of children who have already perished in this war have lost more than their hope for an education – they have lost everything.]

Palestinians are sometimes called the “Jews of the Arabs” because they prize education so much. Families will sacrifice everything in order that their children can receive a good education, and students themselves will endure every hardship imposed by the Israeli occupation in their effort to secure it. Israel, however, continues to place every possible obstacle in the way of Palestinian students, and the situation in Gaza is particularly onerous owing not only to the lack of school supplies and other essentials, but because of the restriction of movement imposed by the Israeli blockade.

The students, too, are prisoners along with everyone else. Of college students seeking to continue their education abroad, only some manage to escape; a great many of such Gazan students are in the end forced to forego their dreams. According to Gisha, an Israeli organization concerned with monitoring the movement restrictions on Palestinians, as of October 21, 2009, there were still 838 students waiting to leave Gaza to study abroad, with the school year already having begun, and many more who had already given up trying.

In their report on this situation, Gisha states:

Overseas travel is no simple matter for Palestinian students because passage through Israel is extremely limited in accordance with a long list of criteria determined by Israel, which include the possession of a “recognized” academic scholarship and enrollment to study in a country which has a diplomatic presence in Israel. In addition, since June 2008 Israel has made the exit of students from Gaza to study abroad conditional on a physical diplomatic escort. The students also have difficulty leaving through Egypt via Rafah crossing due to the fact that it is closed most of the time. The rare openings of Rafah Crossing permit travel for only about 12 percent of people wishing to pass.

One aspect of the current slaughter of Palestinians who have the wretched and unspeakable misfortune of trying to survive the war there, which has not received much commentary pertains to this very point.  Israel is not only obliterating Gaza, it is also shattering the dreams of young people who would otherwise yearn to pursue their education.  A generation of Gazan youth will have to forego any such ambitions and just hope to survive. And for what? And where? The death of dreams, the loss of all hope, is another kind of murder for the living.

In this blog, I will present the dramatic stories of two students, whom I came to know well, who did manage, through luck, their own perseverance, and outside help, to escape. Their stories will both illustrate the lengths to which they had to go in order to travel abroad for their studies and will, I hope, help to bring attention to all those still waiting, against even much greater odds now, to be able to follow in the footsteps of the students you will be meeting next.

My Life as an Eternal Stranger

My name is Hadeel Abukwaik, and I’m from a city called al-Lod in Palestine. I was born in Gaza on August 16, 1984, where I spent my first weeks of life only to move shortly afterward to the United Arab Emirates. I grew up in the UAE with two younger sisters, Yasmin and Shahd, and two younger brothers, Mahmoud and Mohammed. After high school graduation, I left my family and went back to Gaza to study computer systems engineering at Al-Azhar University. As an ambitious person and after spending six difficult years there I won a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue my studies in the U.S. I’m now earning my master’s degree in software engineering at California State University–Sacramento. I like walking, swimming, and both reading and writing. My dream is to have a homeland rather than only hearing about it!

Not long ago, I received an email from a student named Lashauna at a college in Sacramento, California, who had read one of my articles about Gaza, asking me if I wanted to be interviewed for a project dealing with Palestinian justice. Lashauna was not Palestinian herself, but her best friend, Hadeel AbuKwaik, a graduate student at the same university, was not only a Palestinian but a Fulbright Scholar, and, as it developed, she also knew Zohair Abu-Shaban, another Fulbright Scholar whose story you’ll be reading next.

Small world.

As usual, a rapid series of email exchanges ensued, and, as usual, a very warm and friendly relationship developed between Lashauna and me. Naturally, I was curious about Hadeel, too, who at the time was visiting friends on the East Coast. But shortly after Hadeel returned, they both arranged to drive down to visit Anna and me. Hadeel had never before been to San Francisco, and was keen to see it, and since Anna knows the city well and has often taken friends and tourists there, she offered to do the honors for Hadeel and Lashauna.

The day they picked to come down turned out to be warm and sunny, and we had a ball taking them around San Francisco to see all the sights. Indeed, they had the full tourist experience, complete with stops on the Golden Gate Bridge (the photo of Hadeel that appears in this blog was taken there) and a ride on a cable car (we jumped on and off again before we had to pay!).

Serendipitously, in walking through Union Square, we came across a big crowd protesting and noticed immediately that Palestinian flags were waving aloft. It was a demonstration against the attack in Gaza, and of course, many Palestinians were present, so Hadeel felt right at home! Ziad  [another local Palestinian friend of mine] was there, too, so we were able to introduce Hadeel to him and other Palestinians. And as we were leaving, I happened to notice Ahmed Alkhateeb [another Palestinian I had already exchanged e-mails with but had never met] on the street corner, holding up a sign. I recognized him from his photo (and from having seen him interviewed on TV a number of times). I went up to him and said, “Ahmed!” He looked at me blankly, until I identified myself. Then we had a big laugh, and I was able to introduce him to Hadeel (to whom he has been very helpful in various ways since).

The world was getting smaller.

Hadeel later wrote me that she absolutely fell in love with the city, and if she were to remain in America, would love to live there. It certainly would be wonderful to have her as a neighbor across the Bay. In any case, once I had the opportunity to get to know Hadeel, at least a little, that day, I asked her if she’d be willing to write something for our book, and she kindly complied. So here is Hadeel’s story.

All homelands are similar in that their children live there. Only Palestine is unlike any other. Palestine lives in its children.

I don’t know where to start with the story of my twenty-four-year-old life. Do I start with my growing up in the United Arab Emirates, where I was classified as a “foreigner,” or with the last six years I spent in Gaza, where I was classified as a “refugee”? Or should I start in the present, when I am in the USA as an “international student”? Have you ever thought of being without a homeland of your own?

Let me tell you about my family, which I miss and which is made up of my father, mother, and five children, I being the eldest. My good father, Kamal, is a fifty-two-year-old chemical engineer who was born in Gaza and grew up there as a refugee, coming originally from the town of Lod, which he only knew through the stories of his father. My warm mother, Hedaya, is a forty-three-year-old housewife born in Gaza and belonging to it. I was born in Gaza on August 16, 1984. Shortly afterward, my parents decided to move to the Emirates where my sisters and brothers were born: Yasmin, Shahd, Mahmoud and Mohammad.

They moved in search of what locked-up Palestine could not provide its children, hopeful for a better life. But it seems fatigue is the Palestinian’s fate wherever he goes. The label “foreigner” stuck to us everywhere, with its impact on salary, treatment, respect, and even in school. My father works day and night and only gets half of what native-born Emirates citizens get. The laws of the ministries of health, education, water, and electricity charge him double rates compared to locals. Even buying a house was forbidden because he is a foreigner!

As for school, at the beginning of every academic year, there was a committee counting the number of foreign students, and pain tore through my heart as I lifted my hand to announce that I am an unwanted intruder. Add to that the excellence competitions in which I was not allowed to participate because I am not one of them or the prizes I was not qualified for. Every time the “homeland” was the title of the subject I was asked to write in my various school classes, the words “I never saw it and may never do so” would reverberate in my head, accompanied by a sigh “until when?”

The summer of 2002 brought me the news of my high school graduation with distinction, followed by the search for a university that would embrace my dreams and that would be affordable for my refugee father. What I never imagined was for me to end up in Al-Azhar University in Gaza where I spent six years. Was that the encounter with what they call “the homeland”?

My mother accompanied me to the town where her mother and my four aunts live. How painful and beautiful at the same time was the meeting with them after years of separation. She stayed with me in Gaza for twenty days until I enrolled to study computer systems engineering. Upon her departure, she made me promise to realize my dreams and return with success.

I started my adventures in Gaza City, roaming its simple quarters and looking into the eyes of its inhabitants, as if I were looking at them for the homeland that had long been denied to me. I would accompany my university friends who would call me “refugee” jokingly (as I am from Lod, not Gaza) and others called me “expatriate” (for growing up in the Emirates).

One year passed by, and my younger sister Yasmin came to join me at the same university and to share memories. Not long afterward, Israeli infringements on the right to life started to be felt. We saw the Palestinian suffering saga: shelling here and assassination there; child funerals and the screams of their mothers; suspension of studies and staying home for fear of Israeli bombardments; water and electricity cut off for days; a dearth of bread and flour and other food products; fuel shortages and no transportation; the sound of tank shells on the borders of Gaza, my almost daily symphony before sleeping; and lastly, the closure of the crossings with no travel to and from Gaza. Was this the homeland I had dreamt of?

Only the voice of my father and mother through the telephone would offer me in my moments of weakness and tiredness a shot of calm and hope for a better tomorrow. I ignored the situation of slow death in Gaza and concentrated on my goal of excelling in my studies. I graduated with honors from the faculty of engineering and the idea of traveling abroad for further studies overwhelmed my thoughts. I heard of the Fulbright Scholarship in the U.S. and decided to do my best to get one. Although the situation in Gaza had reached its worst stage, and electricity would be available for only four hours a day, I was getting ready for the required tests mainly by the low light of the candles. But with the grace of God, I obtained the grades I needed and succeeded in the interviews to be shortlisted for a scholarship.

Suddenly, however, there was an explosion at the Rafah crossing, which prevented Gaza inhabitants from traveling, and those stuck started escaping, including my sister Yasmin, who wanted me to accompany her. I was torn between joining our parents and running away from death which inhabits Gaza and the determination to achieve my dream and continue my ambitious path. I decided to stay and face danger while awaiting news of the wished for scholarship.

Months later, I got the message that I had been waiting for, and they asked me to come to a meeting at the offices of AMIDEAST (America–Mideast Educational and Training Services), which was the go-between connecting us and the custodians of the scholarship. There I met my six colleagues: Abdul-Rahman, Osama, Duaa, Fidaa, Hadeel (my namesake), and Zohair. We could have flown with joy and our eyes sparkled with hope when the man in charge started by saying “Mabroook” (congratulations). But immediately after that we started to worry when he continued that the real challenge would be to reach the American Consulate in Jerusalem where we would have to submit to interviews for the visa. Since Palestinians can’t travel to Jerusalem without authorization from Israel, there would be no escaping another wait for permission to be granted. Couldn’t we even enjoy our good news for one day without more worry?

A few more months went by with our waiting and praying not to have our dreams stolen from us. In May 2008, we received an email from the American Consulate in Jerusalem that the consulate would not be able to continue with the procedures for the scholarship. The consulate would not give any reasons for the sudden withdrawal of the seven scholarships, but they “strongly urged” us to apply next year, and they assured us that we will have “priority.” I remained staring at the message and reread it again, hoping the words would change and the nightmare would go away.

Is that how our dreams and life are crushed, merely because we are Palestinian?

Amid my tears, which I was not strong enough to hold back, I got a call from an activist in a human rights society dealing with freedom of movement, and she informed me that she had heard about what had happened with me and my six colleagues and asked me to talk to the American press.

I do not hide that I was afraid and hesitant at first. What if my talk would be the last nail in the coffin of my ability to travel again? What if I would be put on a blacklist somewhere? But the tyranny that I felt at canceling the scholarship had a stronger voice, and I agreed to talk to the media. And my point was what did Israel prefer, an educated neighbor or an angry one?

The withdrawal of these scholarships caused an international stir and attracted attention, at least momentarily, to the plight of the seven students in the Gaza Strip. It drew the intervention of the then American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who said she was “surprised” by this decision and that the stance should be reversed. In June, new email messages were sent to us telling us that the American State Department decided to reinstate the seven scholarships and affirmed that it was “working closely” with Israeli officials to secure permits for us to leave Gaza for the U.S. For the first time since the earlier message, I smiled with hearty satisfaction and thanked God that our efforts were not in vain.

Finally, the good news came in July that we would be allowed into Jerusalem on the morrow. I was walking and feeling the breeze around me, dancing to the tune of my happy heart, while heading to the meeting place agreed upon.

Upon arrival, I immediately noticed that Osama and Fidaa were missing, and Zohair told me that they got calls at night telling them that they were refused on “security grounds”! When we arrived at the Erez checkpoint and entered the Israeli side, two officers asked Zohair to go with them for investigation. Hours went by waiting, then Zohair emerged with a look on his face I will never forget and said “I am not allowed to travel!” They called for the rest us to move, leaving Zohair behind. The cruelty to my three young colleagues and their ambitions stuck in my throat. I knew enough about them to be angry when they were described as a security threat.

Ten days later, I received the visa, and the AMIDEAST official told me I was the only one of the seven who would travel the next day and that my colleagues would have their travel arrangements finalized later (only two traveled after me). My tension reached a very high level at the thought of the day I had dreamt of for so long. I bade farewell to my grandmother and aunts and friends, and I said farewell to the corners of Gaza and its streets and beach, and I promised them all to return in order to write a story of a future more beautiful than that of the past.

We were met by the American bus at the Erez crossing, and they told us that we were forbidden to stop anywhere inside what they call Israel but what I insist on calling Palestine. I wondered if my wish to study had made me into a terrorist to be deported to Jordan under American supervision. We passed by the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, but we could not stop for a prayer before we departed and before it crumbles because of all the Israeli digging under it.

Finally, we arrived at the Jordanian borders, and I looked back at Palestine with a sigh, telling myself that I would miss it in spite of everything and in spite of all the agony that I had lived through under the siege.

A new chapter of my life started in the United States of America. The state of Arkansas was my first stop as I spent three weeks there with students from all over the world who were, like me, Fulbright Scholars. The first thing I saw were the names of Zohair and Osama on doors of rooms reserved for them at the student accommodation, as if to remind me of the oppression still there which I had left behind.

One of the things that attracted my attention was that there were Americans who didn’t know anything about Palestine or Gaza, who acted as if they were hearing about them for the first time. Another thing that left me speechless was the “map of the world” when a friend asked me to show him the Palestine that I was talking about and where I come from. It was painful not to find it on the map but to see the name of our occupier in its place, as if it treads on the dignity of all Palestinians. If Palestine did not exist, who am I? Which planet did I descend from to earth?

Everything in the U.S. seemed to me luxurious and very comfortable, and I could not escape the comparison with the deteriorating situation in Gaza. I could not believe that everything we needed was available without interruption: water, electricity, even “security.” I often felt guilty and selfish for enjoying the things that I know my loved ones in Gaza need and wish for. I was sad to see the oppression of man by man there. Is it their fault that they were born Palestinian? Did they choose their fate to be punished for it so cruelly?

In August 2008, I moved to California to start my master’s program in software engineering at the California State University. How happy I was that I was now on my way to realize my dreams and proud of being part of this undoubtedly solid and special educational program. The first semester was over and then came the worst vacation in history, the war on Gaza.

I was sleeping at my uncle’s house in New Jersey, where I was spending my vacation, when I was woken up at six in the morning by the loud sound of the TV repeating nervously “Gaza…Gaza.” The word rang in my head to end my sleep. I got up panicky to watch the Israeli occupation army air force aggressively bombing Gaza, in what they called “Operation Cast Lead.” War and destruction and blood were everywhere. I felt dizzy as if the earth was moving beneath me.

I rushed to my cell phone to find out about my loved ones, but I found that the war had affected even the telephone lines and that they had no electricity by which to get my emails—nothing to tell you if they were still alive or if they had been reached by the Israeli war machine.

After many repeated attempts, I managed to talk to an aunt in Gaza who told me in a voice full of fright that they were seeing death coming undoubtedly this time and that this was not like previous times. How I wished I could be with them because living their fear is easier than watching it and seeing it.

The days of the war went on, and I was stuck to news broadcasts, and my heart and tongue never ceased to pray for the safety of my family and all the people of Gaza and the end to this massacre. How I hated numbers as they were counting the martyrs and the wounded. The story is not of numbers but of bleeding hearts for the departed ones and seeing them die: mothers weeping for their children; wives crying for their husbands that they wished to grow old with; a child finding himself the only survivor of a whole family and not understanding why his mother left him alone in the cold and had not returned. How will children feel, unlike other children with rosy dreams, but with dreams the color of blood? Did they eliminate what they call “terrorism”? Is the defense of Israel in my bleeding grandmother? Is demolishing her house a security necessity? What madness inhabits the world? When will the world wake up from this coma of oppression to which it surrenders?

The new term started with very low morale after the psychological stress I had lived through during the war. But the stories of my friends who survived this tragedy, that they will not give up their dreams and ambitions despite the savagery of what they went through, was an incentive for me to do all I could to succeed.

Yes, I decided that my success will be my gift to my wounded homeland, which I would like to be proud of its daughter. I would like it to be proud of its daughter who still loves it and hopes that it will come back to her and hug her, like other homelands. The remaining question is “until when?”
—A Daughter of Palestine

My Flight from Gaza

Zohair Abu-Shaban, twenty-five, is a prize-winning Palestinian student. He was born in Kuwait and returned to Gaza with his family in 1992 after the first Gulf War. He studied at the Islamic University of Gaza and finished his BS degree in electrical engineering in January 2007 at the top of his class. After that, he worked as a teaching assistant in the same department for two years. He wanted to get his post-graduate education abroad in the same field to fulfill his dream of becoming a professor at a university. He won a Fulbright Scholarship and then lost it. Luckily, he earned another scholarship to study in the U.K.

I first became aware of Zohair Abu-Shaban, a university student in Gaza, after reading about him in the Hartford Courant in August 2008. The article told the story of how he had been prevented from pursuing his graduate education in America as a result of his U.S. visa being revoked—a story that he will narrate in full in the account that follows this introduction. What particularly interested me about Zohair, a Fulbright Scholar, was that the university he had been slated to attend was where I had taught for nearly thirty-five years, the University of Connecticut, in Storrs.

After reading about the plight of other Fulbright Scholars from Gaza who had, like Zohair, first been accepted and then denied entry to the U.S.—articles about them had made the national press at the time—I had already been moved to anger about what seemed to be an obvious and arbitrary, politically motivated blockage, probably instigated by Israel, to prevent Palestinian students from acquiring the kind of graduate education abroad that was simply unavailable in Gaza. But here was a student that had been barred, seemingly so unfairly, from attending my very own university. That rankled, so I determined to see if I could help him.

Through a Palestinian intermediary, I was able in short order to establish email contact with Zohair in early September. He responded appreciatively and provided a great deal of information about himself and his situation and gave me a number of specific suggestions for how I might be able to help him. Over the next two months, until it was time for me to travel with Anna to Palestine, I did everything I could think of to do so. I wrote to several of the engineering professors at the university who were familiar with his case as well as various university officials; they were, to my great disappointment and surprise, collectively very unhelpful. Some of them never even replied to my letters, which stung.

I wrote (or called) people at the State Department; I talked to diplomats at the U.N.; I communicated with a prominent journalist who had written extensively on the subject of these Fulbright Scholars for a leading American newspaper; I spoke with administrators of the Fulbright program who were, of course, familiar with Zohair’s case; I was in touch with Gisha, an Israeli-based organization devoted to helping Palestinian students; I wrote to people at the Carter Center who likewise knew about Zohair and had offered to help; and I make contact with various other people and organizations that I thought might be able to effectively intervene. Some of these people were indeed very sympathetic, but in the end, none of my efforts proved to be availing. I had failed to achieve anything significant for Zohair after two months of trying, and now I was about to leave for Palestine and would not be able to do anything further until after my return in December.

The only thing I had been able to “accomplish” was to have developed a very warm personal relationship with Zohair as a result of our frequent communications. Indeed, I felt that we had become very close, despite never having been able to meet, because of all of the communications I had received in which Zohair had shared his feelings of despondency over his continuing to be mired in Gaza. But I think it meant something to him to know that, however unsuccessful I had been in trying to effect his release from Gaza, at least he had an ally in me who was determined to continue to help him.

That was the state of things when I left for Palestine. What happened after that, Zohair will tell you in his own words.

As a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, I could not have been more proud to learn in June 2008, that I had earned a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States. 

As a child, I would wonder how televisions, computers, and other electronic devices actually worked. I took this fascination to the Islamic University of Gaza, the only Gazan university offering a degree in electrical engineering. There, I developed an ECG monitoring system that enables patients’ hearts to be monitored at home through a personal computer and an Internet link. I won the university prize for distinguished projects for my innovation. I long dreamed of the other advances I might make after an education at the University of Connecticut, where I was scheduled to study last fall for a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

Now, my dream has been stolen from me. I am devastated; my parents heartbroken. Though Israel withdrew its settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it still controls our borders and determines who and what enters or exits. Since a 2006 election that brought a Hamas majority to the Palestinian Legislative Council, Israel has steadily diminished access into and out of Gaza. More than 250 Palestinians died in the past year because they could not leave to obtain medical care they desperately needed. Food, fuel, and medicine are scarce. Hundreds of students like me, with scholarships to study abroad, are being arbitrarily denied the right to leave Gaza to fulfill our educational aspirations.

A few months ago, when I went to the Erez checkpoint between Gaza and Israel, I was told by the Israeli official that I could not leave unless I provided information about my neighbors, colleagues, and relatives. I refused. My conscience and my people’s right to freedom and equal rights mean more to me than even the finest education.

U.S. officials came to my aid. They held special visa interviews along the Israeli-Gaza border for me and two other Fulbright scholars in a similar position. The U.S. granted my visa. Once again, I could imagine taking my seat in a lecture hall in America. I packed my bags, bought souvenirs for my future friends in America, and bade farewell to my family.

Then came a phone call that changed everything. My American visa had been revoked based on “secret evidence” provided by Israel. I cannot see the evidence and so have no opportunity to contest it. 

I was not at all prepared to give up my ambitions. I worked very hard and earned another full scholarship to the U.K. to study in one of the best universities in the world, Imperial College London. I got the British visa last September, but my travel plans still needed a miracle to occur so that Rafah borders would open.

The good news came on September 21 when the Rafah border opened, so I grabbed my luggage, brimming with hope that I would finally be able to take my seat beside other international students in one of the Imperial College halls. I approached Rafah and stayed there for about twenty-four hours in no-man’s-land. I spent a whole day and night there waiting for my bus to come. It never did. Only three buses were allowed, and I was in the twelfth. There I recognized the fact that I am different from my international colleagues at Imperial who have already started their study last October while I was still stranded in the hell that is the Gaza Strip.

A month after studies started at Imperial, the borders opened again. But I was informed that I could not engage in studies if I missed the two-week arrival limit set by the university. However, I was in contact with the student union, which convinced my university to extend the limit for me since I was living on “another planet” and had an odd case. When I heard that, I became indescribably happy and did not think twice. Again, I approached the Rafah crossing, only to spend another day and night there before I was sent back home with more than four hundred students for no reason. Imperial deferred my study to the next year, and I submitted to the de facto situation.

What troubles me most, however, is not my own personal plight, but the effect this experience has had on my talented younger brother. After watching what I had endured as an innocent and politically unaffiliated student, he has concluded that he will no longer pursue the educational dream outside of Gaza he once held. His horizons are closing. 

As an older brother, from a family that places deep value on education, as all Palestinian people do, it pains me to see his own ambitions falter because of the injustice I was facing.

I wonder what hopelessness all children in Gaza suffer when they learn that Gaza’s best students are confined by Israel to the cramped Gaza Strip? How are they to succeed when their parents discover local stores are empty of pencils, pens, and notebooks because of the harsh blockade of our small parcel of land?

Hope shone again last December when a British academic delegation visited Gaza on the Dignity, one of the boats which were being sent to Gaza by a U.S.-based movement called Free Gaza Movement to break the siege. They came to Gaza to visit the academic institutions and get to know the situation of the academic system under siege. They were aware of the Gazan students’ difficulties of not being able to fulfill their eagerness to get education abroad, and they intended to get out as many students as possible on their return from Gaza to Cyprus.

As a student with a very well-known story who had lost his Fulbright and was about to lose a second Scholarship in U.K., I was selected to travel on Dignity with another ten students to different destinations. After a fourteen-hour, very tough voyage, the boat landed on Larnaca Seaport, Cyprus. I could not believe that at last I was away from the prison of Gaza, that I was now set free and would travel to my university with no problems. How amazing that moment was, a moment that made me forget all the pain and fatigue I had endured on deck to reach this point. I even forgot all the difficulties and disappointments I had faced in the past months. In that moment, all I was thinking of was that I was free.

I spent three days in Cyprus before I flew to London. There, a professor from the delegation and a student from the student union were waiting for me at Heathrow Airport. They welcomed me and helped me in finding a place to stay. They were more than kind and friendly and really made me feel at home.

But as usual, the Israeli occupation state stole my happiness. Ten days after arriving in London, I woke up to watch the news, only to find that a very inhumane and indiscriminate war had been launched on the Gaza Strip. I tried to contact my family but I hardly could. I tried again and again until I succeeded. They were all fine, and the aggression was away from my neighborhood. I was relieved to know that and was hoping and praying that the war would end soon. But it was escalating rapidly, and the heartbreaking images of the victims were broadcast on TV. At that time, I wished I were in Gaza again with my family and not living in this peaceful calm city while my people in Gaza were being massacred in cold blood. I could hardly live during those days and nights. Anyway, the first thing that made my heart bleed was to see the news of my university hit by U.S.-made F-16s. It was bombarded by tons and tons of explosives. The tears escaped my eyes after I saw my dearest laboratories where I spent six years learning and then teaching. It was a massive event for which I will never forgive Israel.

Days passed, and the situation and my ability to contact the family in Gaza became more difficult until I received a text from them asking me to call them for urgent news. My heart stopped beating, and I was afraid to make that call. I was wondering what kind of urgent news is this. I collected my courage and phoned them; again, I could hardly succeed in getting through. Five of my close cousins were massacred while they were staying at home. Eight other members of my family were injured, some critically hurt and transferred to Egypt to get treatment. My home was also hit in the war, but thank God my family escaped it beforehand and were already living with my married sister when the bombs destroyed it.

The war ended, but the siege is still imposed, and nothing will improve until the Palestinian people are treated as human beings with the right of self-determination, freedom of education, freedom of movement, and every other right most people in the world enjoy. There are still hundreds of Palestinian students in Gaza hoping for a miracle to happen so that they can pursue scholarships that may offer them a once-in-a-lifetime escape from ignorance and poverty. We are determined not to be rendered a dependent people lacking advanced education. 

And yet the silence of the world suggests that Israel will succeed in keeping us within the limiting confines of Gaza. Perhaps the students of the world will think of me and my fellow Palestinian students as the academic semester begins because the students of Gaza long to be with them.