Suspended Animation in the Strip
For Gaza’s young and ambitious, the ongoing war is just another one of life’s many challenges.
Amal Ashour has big dreams, which extend beyond the 139-square-mile territory she calls home. One of the most promising students in the Gaza Strip, the 20-year-old Ashour wants to get her master’s degree in English literature and become a "serious" college professor. She spent her senior year of high school studying in Minnesota through a U.S.-government funded program — a rare opportunity for bright students in Gaza, which has been choked by an Israeli blockade since Hamas seized power seven years ago.
She had planned to spend the summer studying and reading poetry. John Keats and William Wordsworth are her favorite poets: "My professors joke I’m too romantic," she says. "I love spiritual poetry."
Instead, Amal finds herself in the middle of a war. Her classes have been cancelled indefinitely due to the recent escalation in fighting, which has seen Israeli ground forces enter Gaza for the first time since 2008. Her days are now spent making sure all her friends and relatives are still alive.
"You feel like death is knocking on your door daily," she says, waking up early in Gaza City to check in on her Facebook friends. "[My family] all sleep in the same room now, nine of us, because we don’t want something to happen to one of us. If we all die, we die together."
While there have been sporadic attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict, the violence has only gotten worse — and so far, there seems to be no end in sight. On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered Israel’s military to prepare for "a substantive broadening" of its ground offensive in Gaza, citing the threat posed by tunnels dug by Hamas to infiltrate Israel. The death toll in Gaza has now passed 300 people, with more than 2,000 injured since fighting started on July 8. The United Nations estimated that at least 74 percent of those deaths are civilians. To date, more than 40,000 Gazans have been displaced and are seeking shelter in U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools.
Such futile, lethal conflicts have been the backdrop of Amal’s life. And it’s bright youths like her who stand to lose the most.
When I was introduced to Amal in 2012, she was planning to study English literature that fall at a university in the West Bank through another U.S.-sponsored program. But just a month before school started, she was informed the scholarship was no longer available. Under Israeli pressure, U.S. officials had canceled the program for students in the Gaza Strip, doing away with one of the few American outreach programs in the territory.
She is now enrolled at Gaza’s Islamic University, "happy enough" with her studies, but weighed down by the cold reality that she may never become the person she wants to be.
"We continue to be pawns … just objects in politics," she said. "There’s nothing you can do. You have to be strong and keep hoping that one day you can have a normal life."
A normal life, however, is nearly impossible in Gaza. It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world — home to about 1.3 million Palestinians, roughly one-third of whom live in U.N.-funded refugee camps. The territory is riddled with poverty, its local economy completely stifled by the blockade. According to UNRWA, about 80 percent of the population receives aid. Official Palestinian statistics put Gaza’s unemployment rate at nearly 40 percent, while youth unemployment hovers around 57 percent.
"We have a whole generation who have grown up under occupation," says Dr. Mona El-Farra, health chair of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. "We have a whole society traumatized, living with extensive psychological damage."
More than half of Gaza’s population is under the age of 18. They have grown up intimately familiar with war: This is the third Israeli bombardment Gaza has faced in just the past five years.
"Even if the fighting ends tomorrow," Farra says, "The poverty won’t end. All of us, especially the youth, will still be trapped."
For the few who do manage to find a way out, juggling newfound opportunity with a sense of guilt is a precarious balancing act.
When I met 25-year-old Mohammed al-Majdalawi in Gaza almost three years ago, he was desperately looking for an opportunity to study abroad. A talented young filmmaker, endlessly charismatic and eager for adventure, he felt trapped living in Jabalia Refugee Camp, the largest of Gaza’s eight such camps.
"Technology and the Internet is the only window youth [in Gaza] have to experience the world, to experience life," he says. "From a young age, I’ve dreamed of more."
In 2012, he received a scholarship to study filmmaking at Lund University in Sweden, where he’s been living since. But watching the recent fighting from a safe perch thousands of miles away has been "impossible," he says. He tries to talk daily to his mother and siblings who still live in the camp, but electricity and phone lines are frequently down. Jabalia is located in northern Gaza, where Israeli forces have warned residents to evacuate due to the intensity of their bombardment.
"What if something happens to my family? How would I even be able to get back in? I will not forgive myself if they die while I am away," he says.
For people like Mohammed, another cease-fire is not enough — he believes that the status quo must fundamentally change, with more education exchange and development programs for Gazan youth.
For Mariam Abultewi, 24, a talented computer engineering graduate, that glimmer of opportunity came through Gaza Sky Geeks — Gaza’s first and only start-up accelerator. While studying at the University of Gaza, where 60 percent of the IT program is made up of women, she founded Wasselni, a social carpooling network for transportation in Gaza. She is the first female start-up founder in Gaza to receive investment through Gaza Sky Geeks, and hopes to scale the idea across the region.
When I met Mariam last May, she was attending a Yahoo conference on women and technology in the Middle East. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, Mariam was on her first trip outside Gaza. Unlike many, she doesn’t fear that she won’t succeed — she says her guiding mantra is "fail hard."
She only fears she will never be given the opportunity to fail. Since the conflict erupted, both Gaza Sky Geeks and her university have been shuttered.
"We want to show the world what we can do, but we have so little opportunity to show them," she said. "We want to be more than the conflict … but we need more space to grow."
It’s not only Mariam whose world is getting smaller. In another part of Gaza City, Amal prepares for another uncertain night. For the past week, she says she’s dreamt of her time studying abroad in the United States, where she could move freely and life seemed to be full of unlimited possibilities.
"Everyone — Hamas, Israel, the world — is controlling us, but so many of us have nothing to do with these politics," she says. "We are just a generation waiting to be normal. We are just a generation waiting to live."