stat counter

Friday, November 28, 2008

Trapped in Gaza with a Fulbright Scholarship

University students in the Gaza Strip who want to study abroad have been facing severe restrictions since Israel imposed a blockade on the territory two years ago. Israel took the measure after the militant Hamas movement won elections in Gaza and took over control of the territory.

Listen to the storyEvery year, one thousand or so Gazan students are accepted by foreign universities. But since the blockade was imposed, fewer than half of them have been able to go study abroad. One of them is Zohair Abu Shahan. This is his story.

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

Zohair Abu ShahanAs a child, I would wonder how televisions, computers and washing machines 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 this 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 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 200 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 fulfil our educational aspirations.

A few weeks 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 collaborated with the Israeli occupation. I refused. My conscience and my people's right to freedom and equal rights mean more to me than even the finest education.

Aerial view of Gaza
An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, a narrow coastal strip along the Mediterranean Sea about 41km long and between six and 12 km wide.

Erez tunnel
The tunnel that leads to the Israeli side. Thousands of Gazans used to pass here every day to work in Israel.

US 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 US 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'm not prepared to give up my plans. I worked very hard and earned another full scholarship to UK 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 need a miracle to take place.

The good news came on September 21 and Rafah border opened. So I grabbed my luggage brimming with hope that I would take my seat beside other international students in one of the Imperial College halls. I approached Rafah and stayed there for about 24 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 busses were allowed and I was in the twelfth. There I recognised the fact that I am different from my international colleagues at Imperial who have already started their study while I am still stranded in the hell that is the Gaza Strip.

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 have 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, it pains me to see his own ambitions falter because of the injustice I am 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 economic blockade of our small parcel of land?

There are hundreds of Palestinian students in Gaza hoping for a miracle so that we can pursue scholarships that may offer 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. Maybe the students of the world will think of me and my fellow Palestinian students because we the students of Gaza long to be with you. (Source)

No comments: