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For Gaza’s New Academic Year, A Fitful Start

Most Arab students have already enrolled at university and are buckling down with new assignments. But many of their counterparts in Gaza are taking their seats in damaged—or overflowing—classrooms more than a month after the Gaza conflict ended.

Gaza students said they know this academic year is going to be tough.

“My classes will begin in October—it’s going to be difficult,” said Amira Shannan, 19, who is studying English literature at Al-Azhar University, a Palestinian institution with no relationship to the Egyptian one, “We used to have electricity for eight hours a day, now we have it for six and sometimes less. Sometimes, there is no water too.”

The Israeli aerial and ground assault, which killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and injured thousands more, ended on August 26 with an Egypt-brokered truce. But damage inflicted on university and school buildings delayed the start of the academic year—usually at beginning of September—by three weeks.

Some 277 schools in Gaza were affected by the attacks, according to a recent Palestinian Ministry of Education report. Higher education institutions were also caught in the crossfire: Twelve universities—three public and nine private—were fully or partially destroyed with repairs estimated at $11 million.

Universities say they are struggling because of the damage.

“Our work has been hampered by the war,” said Yahya Al Sarraj, deputy chairman of external affairs at the Islamic University of Gaza, the strip’s largest and oldest academic institution, which was attacked by Israeli planes, destroying the main administration building. The university reopened September 20. “Our employees and staff are trying their best to resume their work after the administration building was attacked—that led to the loss of databases, computers, files and documents.”

Despite the difficulties, universities are quickly trying to get back to business as usual.

University College of Applied Sciences, one of Gaza’s main vocational education institutions with about 9,000 students, suffered extensive damage estimated at $3 million but has already opened its doors for the new academic year.

“The debris has been removed with the participation of all workers and employees who volunteered to help,” said university spokesman Mohammed Al Ashi.

“Of course, the renovation has been slow due partly to the lack of building materials and resources because of the imposed siege,” he added, referring to Israel and Egypt’s seven-year blockade of Gaza which restricts the importation of building and other materials to the territory. “We have no other choice than to keep on going.”

Students also said they are trying to move forward even though the conflict has taken a toll on their studies. The summer semester was cut short by the conflict and students said that during the war, they were unable to leave their homes to attend class because of the airstrikes. That led to extra pressure to cram a lot in, in a very short time.

“In times of truce, we had classes but because the Israeli aggression took (weeks), we had to finish the whole summer semester in only a couple of weeks,” said Mohammed Abu Zaanona, 22, a fifth-year medical student also attending Al-Azhar University. “We had just survived the Israeli aggression, then we had to stretch ourselves with a huge amount of information that we had to take in, in school, then we had finals. It was all exhausting and stressful.”

On top of that, the war made it difficult to focus on academics, they added.

“It left a big scar on all of us,” said Zaanona. “Palestinians are well known for being able to tolerate a lot of things but the last Israeli aggression was really heavy and violent. It was unexpected.”

A recent study co-authored by the University of Leicester and the Palestinian institution, Al-Quds University and published in the Arab Journal of Psychiatry showed that adolescents in the Gaza strip developed anxiety disorders as a result of exposure to conflict, with females reporting a greater number of post-traumatic stress symptoms than males.

“The toll on the mental health of these young people tends to be exacerbated by poverty, which is endemic in Gaza—it’s a double whammy for many of them.” said Professor Panos Vostanis who led the study, in a press release.

Especially now as the conflict has left people without homes and employment: Factories and businesses were also devastated in the war.

All this has left students unable to pay tuition fees and frantic about it: Students demonstrated September 17 in front of universities calling for a fee exemption. Al Sarraj, the Islamic University of Gaza’s deputy chairmen of external affairs, told Al-Fanar Media that more than 60 percent of the university’s students cannot afford to pay tuition this semester.

“We have lost our homes and many of our family members, many are left without breadwinners,” said Dania Salah, a second-year student at the Islamic University of Gaza. “We cannot pay the fees.”

At the same time, nearly 65,000 displaced people are still living in about 25 U.N. schools, making Gaza’s school overcrowding worse and hindering education, according to a recent U.N. statement.

Ala’a Abu Aleinein, a 26-year-old M.B.A. student at the Islamic University of Gaza, who is also a primary-school teacher, says everyone from first graders to university students has lost something and that moving forward is a slow process.

“My pupils are in a very bad situation—they don’t have anything to wear because their homes were bombed during the war, they have nothing there,” said Aleinein. “They just come to school with nothing. No one has the spirit to study.”

She herself feels dispirited over her future: She is trying to change careers and transition from education to business. But she says her chances at success are bleak.

I have done a lot for my master’s degree and I don’t want to stop in the middle,” she added. “It also costs a lot of money. But once I finish, what job can I have?”

Contributing: Jennifer Collins in Berlin, Yousef Al-Helou in London, Lara Aburamadan in Gaza City, Mohammad Awad in Gaza City; Faek reported from Amman and Dumalaon from Berlin.


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