Sara Daghmosh is furious. She is in a huff as she enters the Italian Center for Cultural Exchange-VIK, named after the activist and writer Vittorio Arrigoni, who was killed in Gaza in 2011.
“Meri, they have rejected my application! I don’t understand. I had the right qualifications to attend that university course (in Italy), and instead I have to wait another year,” the young Palestinian tells Meri Calvelli, the head of the center. She opens the files on her computer to show that she followed the procedure to the letter.
Calvelli reads everything carefully. “You’re right,” she admits, “everything is in order. I’m afraid that the university gave a negative response because so many Palestinian young people have applied for that course.”
She explains to us: “Those who finish college in Gaza try every possibility to further their studies, including abroad, while they’re waiting to find a job in Gaza. But European universities have limited availability, and many of them don’t receive a positive response.”
In the end, Daghmosh, 25, doesn’t seem so crushed anymore. She can only accept the situation and try again as soon as possible. “I consider myself more fortunate than other young people, because I have a job,” she says. “I need that university course to improve my knowledge, but in the meantime I’m employed part-time at a center that studies conflict resolution.”
The salary she is earning is small—“it’s not much, but it gives me economic independence and allows me to have patience. Many of my friends and former college classmates don’t have this privilege. They are graduates, but can’t find a decent job. Many of them just dream of going away, escaping from Gaza and starting a new life. But they know that only few will manage to actually do it.”
The Gaza Strip is closed off by Israel to the north and Egypt to the south. To the west, the naval blockade doesn’t allow any maritime routes to the countries of the Mediterranean. Gaza is shut off from the world on all sides, and no one can enter or leave without permission given by Israel or Egypt.
With over two million people crowded into fewer than 400 square kilometers, Gaza produces thousands of university graduates each year. In 2017, over 21,000 people graduated from its universities, 10,000 of them women. After their studies are completed, these young men and women have to wait for years to find a job. Hope is the only thing they have.
“The economic blockade implemented by Israel minimizes the chances for the economy to grow and create jobs fitting for the level of education of young graduates,” says Basem Abu Jrai, a researcher at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza City. “And this limitation is even more severe when you take into account that 50 percent of the population of Gaza is made up of young people under 20. Unemployment overall is close to 47 percent, among young people it is up to 60 percent, and among women it reaches 85 percent.”
In these conditions, young people rarely raise their voices against the authorities, seeing that even their parents are often unemployed, and that the root of the problem lies in the Israeli occupation. One unofficial statistic that illustrates the precarious condition of much of the population of Gaza is the fact that around 100,000 of the inhabitants are heavily indebted, and quite a few people have been charged with fraud for issuing bad checks.
Abu Jrai points out that over the past decade, around 300,000 graduates have applied to the Labor Ministry to be included in a temporary employment program at public offices, with a salary below 300 euro. “At the end of that government program, these young people returned to the labor market, where they found little or nothing,” the researcher adds. “Many have had to accept menial work and starvation wages just to have any job at all.”
Some join a political force in the hope that their choice leads to opportunities for a good job. Others, after years of unemployment, try to get into the police and security forces. “The consequences for both the individual and society are very serious,” Abu Jrai says. “Young people with a good education and who are out of work are no longer motivated, and sometimes they choose isolation and end up marginalized in family life and their communities. Others stop being able to imagine their future. The 10 percent decline in marriages registered last year in Gaza is a case in point. Not to mention that some people turn to psychotropic drugs, or attempt suicide.”
According to local media, at least 18 Palestinians committed suicide in Gaza last year, some of whom were young. Furthermore, in 2017 there has been a 69 percent increase in the number of those who have sought the services of the psychiatric hospital in Gaza or of the public mental health centers.
We asked Hassan Ziada, a psychologist working for the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, an NGO that for almost 30 years has been studying the negative consequences and trauma suffered by civilians because of Israeli military attacks and the closure of the Gaza Strip, to give us his opinion about these statistics. “Numbers aside, I can say that in our centers we have experienced a marked increase in the number of people who have begun to take anxiolytics and similar drugs,” Ziada tells us at his office in Shuhada street in Gaza City. “The same with people with suicidal tendencies, or those who end up involved in violence within the family. And young people are among these cases.”
“We think that the problem is, first of all, a political one,” he adds. “Without a political solution that would radically transform the current situation of Gaza, living under Israeli threat, and which would put an end to the internal split between the Hamas and Fatah parties, the condition of Gaza’s population will not improve.”
According to the Palestinian psychologist, if there is no radical change in the coming years, “the symptoms of mental problems will only multiply, and young people, without future prospects and who are most at risk, will be affected the worst.”