It is an occasion for fireworks, songs, traditional dances and—when there is electricity—even colored lights: the Tawjihi, the secondary school graduation exam, is a moment that Palestinians always celebrate, whatever the circumstances, even when these are most tragic. The completion of one’s education still has value in Palestinian society.
This is also true in Gaza, where students and their families face such difficulties and obstacles as can only be found in few other places in the world. For Iman Abu Shammala and her family, there is an extra reason to celebrate: she scored 99.7% out of 100, making her the top Palestinian student in the Occupied Territories.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I gave a big hug to my mom and dad, who have supported me in every way. For the past few days, I have been getting congratulations from friends and acquaintances. The Ministry of Education sent me a message of congratulations and a special certificate for my achievement.”
Iman has always been a good kid, and a bit nerdy, she confesses. “Studying has been my passion since I was a child,” she admits. “It helps me overcome difficulties, overcome depression over the condition we are living in here in Gaza. I love the sciences.”
This year, the coronavirus has complicated the lives of students and teachers around the world. “Even more so in Gaza,” the girl tells us. “We usually study by candlelight, especially in winter, because we almost never have electricity. And if you don’t have electricity, you can’t use computers. Then came the pandemic, schools were closed and some teachers tried to teach online, but it’s hardly the case that everyone has a tablet here in Gaza.”
In a few weeks, Iman will start studying medicine at the Islamic University. Safaa Sheikh Eleid, also from Gaza, who ranked second in the Tawjihi national ranking with 99.4%, will instead attend the English literature program at Al-Azhar University. She hopes to obtain a scholarship for a master’s degree and PhD abroad. “I have been luckier than many of my classmates,” she says, “my family can afford an autonomous power generator and I didn’t have to study by candlelight. Someday I’d like to travel, get to know the world.”
Iman and Safaa’s dreams are the same as those of all the young people in Gaza, whatever their situation: to leave, to meet other young people, to visit faraway places, exotic destinations. However, they have to face the discouraging economic and statistical data. A large part of the population lives below or around the poverty line.
“I’m afraid that many young people, including Iman and Safaa, are already aware that only a few of them will be able to make those dreams a reality. Gaza is a prison, guarded by Israel, and things will not change anytime soon,” comments Yusef H., a 30-year-old reporter from Gaza. “It’s not just a matter of poverty and missing opportunities,” he says. “Getting a visa to go to the US, Italy or the rest of Europe is a challenge. The conditions that we must fulfil are very strict. It’s not like that for someone who is Israeli.”
The fate of the thousands of boys and girls who have passed the Tawjihi this year will be to swell the ranks of the unemployed in Gaza, sadly at one of the highest levels in the world. Unemployment among 15-29 year olds in Gaza was 65.2% last year. And the coronavirus has made everything even worse. About 4,000 workers lost their jobs in recent months when 50 factories closed down.
Many restaurants and hotels that used to be frequented by the small minority that can afford them were also forced to close, which employed over 5,000 people. “The Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has lasted for 14 years, is the cause of the lack of jobs for 250,000 people, mostly young people. And the pandemic is adding thousands of workers to that number every month,” warned Sami al-Amassi, head of the General Federation Trade Unions in Gaza.