Gazans strive to study as war shatters education system

Published May 14, 2024
A charred hall is seen at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), which was destroyed during Israel’s military offensive in Gaza City on April 28, 2024. — Reuters
A charred hall is seen at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), which was destroyed during Israel’s military offensive in Gaza City on April 28, 2024. — Reuters

AL MAWASI: Pupils sitting with their legs crossed in the sand, take classes inside a tent, near the city of Khan Yunis, in Gaza. Two sisters connect online to a West Bank school from Cairo. A professor in Germany helps Palestinian students link up with European universities.

After witnessing their schools and universities being forced to close, being damaged and/or destroyed, in more than seven months of war, Gazans sheltering inside and outside the territory are doing whatever they can, in order to resume ‘learning’.

“We are receiving students, and we have a very large number of them still waiting” said Asmaa al-Astal (a volunteer teacher at the tent school near the coast in al-Mawas). This school had opened in late April.

Instead of letting children lose a whole year of schooling as they cower from Israeli bombardment, “we will be with them, we will bring them here, and we will teach them” she said.

Over 350 teachers and academics have been killed and nearly 90,000 students stranded since Oct 7

Gazans fear that the Israeli onslaught has inflicted damage to their education system, which is a rare source of hope and pride within the enclave (that will outlast the fighting).

Gaza and the occupied West Bank have literacy rates deemed to be ‘high’, in the context of the globe. However, Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian enclave and repeated rounds of conflict have left the state of education as, ‘fragile’ and ‘under-resourced’.

Since the war began, schools have been bombed or turned into shelters for displaced people. This was effectively left Gaza’s estimated 625,000 ‘school-aged children’, unable to attend classes.

All 12 of Gaza’s institutions of higher education have been destroyed or damaged, leaving nearly 90,000 students stranded, while more than 350 teachers and academics have been killed, according to Palestinian official data.

“We lost friends, we lost doctors, we lost teaching assistants, we lost professors, we lost so many things in this war” stated Israa Azoum, a fourth-year medical student at Gaza City’s ‘Al Azhar University’.

Azoum is currently volunteering at the ‘Al Aqsa hospital’, in the town of Deir al-Bala. She decided to volunteer to help overworked members of staff deal with waves of patients and also because she doesn’t want to “lose the connection with science”.

“I never feel tired because this is what I love doing. I love medicine, I love working as a doctor, and I don’t want to forget what I have learnt” she said.

Fahid Al-Hadad, head of Al Aqsa’s emergency department and a lecturer at the faculty of medicine at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), said he hopes to start teaching again, though he had lost the books and papers which he had accumulated over a period of more than a decade (when his home in Gaza City was destroyed).

Online instruction is further complicated by weak internet connection, but at least it enables students to complete their degrees, he said. The buildings of IUG and Al Azhar stand ‘badly damaged’ and ‘abandoned’, on neighbouring sites in Gaza City.

“We are ready to give in any way, but much better inside Gaza than outside. Because don’t forget that we are doctors and we are working” Hadad said.

‘Tens of thousands’ of Gazans who crossed over into Egypt, too, face obstacles. Though they are living in relative safety, they lack the papers needed to enrol their children in schools. In view of this, some have signed up for remote learning being offered from the West Bank, where Palestinians have limited self-rule under Israeli military occupation.

The Palestinian embassy in Cairo plans to supervise ‘end-of-year exams’ for 800 high school students. Kamal al-Batrawi, a 46-year-old businessman, said his two school-aged daughters began online schooling after the family arrived in Egyptian capital, around five months ago.

“They take classes every day, from 8am until 1:30pm, as if they were in a regular school. This is a lifesaving act” he said.

In southern Gaza (where more than a million people have been displaced), the UN’s agency for children, ‘Unicef’, has been organising recreational activities, such as singing and dancing, with some basic learning. It aims to create 50 tents, where 6,000 children will be able to take classes in three daily shifts.

“It’s important to do it, but it remains a drop in the ocean” said Jonathan Crickx, head of communications, for Unicef in Palestine.

Wesam Amer, Dean of the Faculty of Communication and Languages at Gaza University, said although online teaching may be an interim solution, it cannot provide the physical or practical learning that is required for subjects such as medicine and engineering.

After departing Gaza City for Germany in November, he is advising students on how best to match their courses, with options available at universities in the West Bank or Europe.

“The challenges of the day after the war aren’t only about the infrastructure, university buildings. It is about the dozens of academics who have been killed in the war and the tough task trying to make up for them or replace them” he said.

Those killed include IUG president Sufyan Tayeh. He died with his wife and five children, due to ‘a strike’ on his sister’s house, in December.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2024

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