The painful price Gazans must pay for a Cambridge education

Being Palestinian from Gaza demands heartache, resilience, and luck to take on the obstacles of getting an education away from an occupied home.

Palestinian students during a graduation ceremony in Ramallah, the West Bank, May 29, 2011. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian students during a graduation ceremony in Ramallah, the West Bank, May 29, 2011. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

The travel agency called on Monday, Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. The bus will leave Gaza at 6 a.m. the following morning to Egypt through the Rafah Crossing, the agent informed me over the phone.

The news came as a shock. I wasn’t expecting to leave home anytime soon. When traveling from Gaza, you don’t simply book a ticket or anticipate things going according to plan; you register your name with a travel agency, and a departure date is assigned to you based on your luck.

People register their names months prior to the day they expect the crossings to be open, but I had only signed up a few days before, having received my admission into the University of Cambridge late. Given this delay,  the only way I could register to travel was to pay extra, though the travel agency advised me not to — the chance my name would show up on the travelers’ list was very low, they had warned. I took the risk anyway because Gaza is unlike any other place: the crossings with Egypt and Israel, the only way in and out for Palestinians from the strip, are seldom open, perhaps three times per month — or months — if you are lucky.

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I hung up the phone to the flow of tears running down my mother’s face. I was shocked. I couldn’t formulate a reaction or say anything. A few months ago, I had returned to Gaza after living in Lebanon for four years to pursue my undergraduate studies. I was just starting to settle back in at home; it was overwhelming to stop and reflect about leaving again. If I allowed my thoughts about my future to take over, they would hold me captive. I would freeze entirely. So, I decided to keep moving and leave my family for the hundredth time.

I had 12 hours to pack my bags, spend quality time with my parents and siblings, and say my goodbyes. But my body and brain were in a state of disbelief. I could not get myself to properly pack nor be present with my family on our last night together. I lay in bed, watching my mother pack my favorite clothes, my kuffiyeh and my favorite pair of shoes that had traveled with me to five different countries this year, trying to fit them all into two small suitcases. Realizing the long, tiring trip ahead of me, my mom interrupted the packing and rushed into the kitchen to prepare sandwiches. She asked my brother to bring me snacks and my preferred type of coffee.

I am 22 years old, and the years I remember clearly were full of changes and goodbyes. I do not recall the last time I actually settled down and felt at peace. I guess that’s the price I pay for trying to secure a good education and a future away from an occupied and terrorized home.

Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, after it was opened for two days by Egyptian authorities, on May 11, 2016. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, after it was opened for two days by Egyptian authorities, on May 11, 2016. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

On my last night, my dad kept saying: “Tala, how come you are going to leave me again? I was so glad I finally had you in my arms.” My mom could not stop crying and repeating how much she loves me. My brothers, also on the verge of tears, did not leave my side that night. When I am home, my dad and I play cards every night, and on my last night, we shared this ritual with the whole family. We played, laughed, and enjoyed my mom’s pastries until a couple of hours before I had to leave them all behind again.

Goodbyes, no matter how much one gets used to them, hit differently every time. I don’t think I will ever get used to the heartache that follows the warmth of my mother’s last hug and my father’s look, bursting with pride. The pain doesn’t subside, the heart just learns how to tolerate it better.

I walked away, not allowing myself to look back or think of home — especially after feeling its warm embrace after years longing for it. I knew if I just turned around and caught a glimpse of my parents’ shadows, I would run back to their arms.

I hit the road at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, as the agent promised. There were a lot of people leaving and we were divided into different buses, all organized by the travel agency. I was on Bus No. 2 with about 20 other Palestinians. I tapped into observation mode, as I usually do on trips. I heard Palestinians express hope and happiness about finally leaving Gaza — the open-air prison, as they call it. Most of them had booked flights out of Egypt to other countries where they aspire to create a better life.

And I was just there. No onward flights booked and no visa secured. My master’s program in the U.K. was set to start on Oct. 1 with online classes, and I had till the end of October to get to the university. I couldn’t sign up for a student visa from Gaza because the U.K. visa office was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So leaving for Egypt was a drastic risk that I had to take. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to apply for a visa from there, since I have nothing on me except for my Palestinian passport. However, if I did not seize my chance this time, there might be no other opportunity to risk anything at all; nobody really knows when the Rafah Crossing will open again.

Palestinian students attend their graduation ceremony at the Birzeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 16, 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian students attend their graduation ceremony at the Birzeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 16, 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Being from Gaza means that good news and opportunities never come easy. If you are admitted into a university or receive a job abroad, you have to be prepared to take on all the possible risks and face all the possible obstacles: from the call letting you know whether you can travel, to the countless checkpoints along the way. Through all that, you learn patience and acquire resilience till those traits become most of what you are. You must produce the power to wait. And most importantly, you must not take it personally when, while traveling, you get treated like a prisoner charged with multiple crimes. The only crime we have committed, however, is being born in Gaza.

There is no sad ending here

This was my first time traveling through Rafah alone. I shut down, suppressing my thoughts and emotions. It felt like the only way I could survive.

The journey was full of waiting and humiliation. When I arrived at the Egyptian border, I waited for six hours simply for the Egyptian officer to stamp my passport and permit me to leave. Borders are not like airports; just as your date of departure depends on your luck, so too does the time you leave from the other side of the border. My problem was not with the hours-long wait, though: at 8 p.m., the Egyptian military blocks off the city of Sinai, which we must cross on our way to Cairo, for safety reasons. If travelers don’t make it there before the curfew, they are forced to spend the night on the street until the gates are opened again in the morning.

The clock was ticking. It was 7 p.m. I detached from my emotions of fear and sadness. But I could not take my mind off the possibility of sleeping on the street. My body moved before I could comprehend what was happening around me. I made a friend on the bus. I called her and decided to go talk to “the intelligence agency.” We did. We cried at the officers, explaining how unfair the situation was. “How do you allow a 22-year-old student who is traveling by herself to spend a night on the street? Please, be merciful and stamp my passport,” I shouted. The officer coldly said, “I will see what I can do,” and left.

Few minutes later, my name was called along with seven other passengers to board the 7:30 p.m. bus. Meaning, we have 30 minutes to cross around 10 checkpoints to make sure we don’t get stuck on the road. Our journey was relatively easy compared to the hundreds of Palestinians who had to stay the night either at the border or in between checkpoints until the gates open again in the morning.

After 22 hours of traveling, I finally made it to my aunt’s place in Cairo at 4 a.m. I opened the door to find a hot meal on the table and my aunt half-asleep on the couch waiting for me. I hugged her, enjoyed my meal, showered and slept for 12 hours without interruption.

I spent one month in Egypt. Things did not get any easier. But once again, I could not afford to lament my journey; I had to get going. The university’s admission office granted me permission to arrive to Cambridge by Oct. 31, so I had exactly one month to get there. The next morning, I booked the earliest visa appointment at the U.K. embassy, which was in two weeks. I prepared my documents and attended my classes online in the meantime.

I received my U.K. visa on Oct. 22, and booked my ticket for two days later. My experience of flying through an airport was much easier than leaving Gaza through the Rafah Crossing.

I arrived in Cambridge but the journey was still not over: I had to self-isolate yet again. I quarantined in one of the university’s accommodation facilities, where they provided us with three meals a day. Since this was not my first time in quarantine, it wasn’t very hard to adapt and establish a routine. Days passed by slowly, but I filled my time with classes, working on assignments, connecting with friends, and watching Netflix.

Tala Shurrab in Cambridge, November 2020. (Photo courtesy of Tala Shurrab)
Tala Shurrab in Cambridge, November 2020. (Photo courtesy of Tala Shurrab)

A few months and plenty of breakdowns later, I can say I have triumphed over the trip. I am finally writing this from my dorm room at the University of Cambridge. Now, I have the time to relax and reflect on my journey, but this time I am celebrating myself. There is no sad ending here. Perhaps opportunities come at a cost, but having a purpose makes all the pain worth enduring.

It has been two weeks, and I walk around the streets of Cambridge feeling more grateful and happier than I have ever been. I remind myself of how, years ago, I would look at pictures of the university, wishing I could be one of the smart kids who make it to such a prestigious institution.

I am here to pursue a master’s degree in psychology and education, and I plan to return to Gaza to begin my career as an educational psychologist there. I haven’t had a stable relationship with home since 2014, which means I am constantly looking for little things that can help me feel closer to it while I’m away. But I know that in the end, all of this suffering will be worth it, when I get back to Gaza doing what I set my mind to do since I was 15 years old.