University-aged Palestinians live a life where freedom seems a world away. Life at times seems without hope.
The Gaza Strip, home to more than a million Palestinians, is a conflict-torn area walled off from Israel and Egypt. Over 80 percent of the population in Gaza lives in refugee camps.
An e-mail interview with university-aged Gazans and research by Catholic Relief Services reveal the extent of the difficulties they face.
Mohammad Al-Rozzi, 23, has lived in a Gazan refugee camp since his birth in 1985 and has witnessed constant violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 2003, Al-Rozzi, applied to a university outside of Gaza to study to become an occupational therapist. Bethlehem University accepted 10 students from Gaza into their program in the West Bank. Al-Rozzi was one of them.
However, the students’ hope and excitement would not last for long. Shortly after their university admission, they found out they would not be permitted to travel to Bethlehem to attend the university. Israeli authorities stopped all Palestinians, including students, from leaving the Gaza strip in reaction to explosive rockets fired into Israeli towns from Gaza. Israel controls all movement in and out of Gaza because it controls the airport and border crossings to the other parts of Palestine, which are separate sections in other regions within Israel.
In a complex intra-Palestinian political situation, fighters from the Hamas party forced the ruling Fatah party out of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. This shift in Gazan power threatened Israel since one of Hamas’ charter statements advocates the elimination of Israel. ?Gaza became a location from which suicide bombers entered Israel and rockets were launched. As a result, Israel closed the border crossings from Gaza, stopping most commerce and travel.
Because of these military and political struggles, young Palestinians’ hopes and ambitions are thwarted by the conflict.
The Catholic peacebuilding organization, Catholic Relief Services, has taken notice.
“They want a solution. They want change and they want it soon. We have to ask ourselves what can we do to let that happen,” CRS Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza project manager Burcu Munyas said in a recent interview on Cabrini’s campus.
In her two years of experience in the region, Munyas, 27, has examined the major issues that college-aged students in Gaza face.
The young Palestinians feel isolated because they cannot travel. Around 60 percent of the youth that Munyas works with has never been outside of the 25- mile-long and seven-mile-wide state.
“Gaza has six crossing points through which movements of goods and people are allowed but since June 2007 this movement has been very much restricted. Therefore it’s making the lives of people in Gaza very difficult,” Munyas said.
Unemployment has become another major issue.
“Families have become a lot poorer and for university students this might mean that they will not be able to pay their tuition fees anymore or even they will not have enough money for transportation,” Munyas said.
“They try hard and do their best to obtain education because they believe that’s the only way that they can build up their country, achieve independence and prosper by building a good future for themselves but closure does not allow them to go out,” Munyas said.
For Al-Rozzi, closure stood in the way of his dream to help the people of Gaza, his people. Due to the restrictions of movement by Israeli forces, Al-Rozzi and the other students were never allowed to leave the Gaza strip or set foot on Bethlehem University.
However, an arrangement was made between the university and an agency in Gaza. The students took courses in Gaza using the Internet. The students also took three intensive courses in Egypt.
After four years of patience and dedication to their studies, the Palestinians were able to graduate from Bethlehem University. In an emotional ceremony at Bethlehem University, 10 occupational therapy students from Gaza strip graduated in 2007 but their graduation was also from a distance, using a videoconference.
“It was a touching moment which made us cry,” Al-Rozzi said. “Actually, this experience has taught me more about myself and my potential than anything else.”
The proud new university graduate participates in Gazan Youth Speak Out, a program Burcu Munyas helps run in Gaza.
Al-Rozzi explains that Gazan Youth Speak Out is “an opportunity for me to reflect my points of view and understand more about the reality of Palestinian youth.”
Although CRS continues to work for peace in the Middle East, their mission has been far from easy.
Munyas explained Palestinian youth do not want further division. They want national unity. They think internal political conflict is harming their national cause of building a state for themselves in hopes of gaining independence.
“It is very important for Palestinian people that the citizens of the United States care and know about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Therefore, it’s very important to them that the United States know about their suffering and do something to generate change,” Munyas said.