When Egypt opened the Rafah crossing in February for three days, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza applied to leave.
Among them were 29-year-old Rani Humeid.
“I’m leaving Gaza to find the future that I dream of,” said Humeid as he was waiting in a makeshift departure hall at the crossing.
Humeid earned a master’s degree in media and public relations in Malaysia in 2012, and he continued studying when he returned.
“I received a research grant from the Media Development Center of Birzeit University in Gaza,” said Humeid.
But the young scholar also needed to earn money. He worked, he said, as a part-time lecturer at both Al-Aqsa and Palestine universities in Gaza and took on a job as a program coordinator at the Palestinian Association for Education and Environmental Protection.
“I’ve done a lot during the last three years in Gaza but I’m sure I would have accomplished more if I had been abroad,” he said. “Life here is difficult. I lost a lot of opportunities because of the closed crossings.”
After nearly 10 years of suffocating siege, the Gaza Strip’s economy lies in tatters.
The 43 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the world, according to the World Bank, and youth unemployment has soared above 60 percent.
In such a climate, it is not surprising that Gaza’s brighter and better educated, like Humeid, seek their futures elsewhere.
Humeid is now going the US where he hopes to finish his PhD.
“I am going to find opportunities and improve my academic capacity,” he said.
He is not alone.
Travel from Gaza is entirely contingent on the political situation. There are only two exits. Travel north, through the Erez checkpoint and into Israel or on to the West Bank, is only allowed for some aid workers with international organizations, patients in need of critical care, those with special permits granted by the Israeli military, almost impossible to obtain, or a few merchants with business in Israel.
South, to Egypt, the way is mostly barred. Before Cairo opened the Rafah crossing from 13 to 15 February, and since October 2014, the crossing had been open a mere 39 days.
Present danger, future challenge
When the news that Egypt was to open the crossing in February broke, more than 25,000 people registered to cross. Fewer than 2,500 eventually made it.
Many simply wanted to get out of Gaza for a while. After nearly 10 years of siege and three Israeli military assaults, a break from Gaza is a break from prison.
But observers have also noted an increasing number of educated people leaving to make their lives elsewhere. And Gaza’s brain drain is causing concern.
“Unemployment is the main reason,” said Samir Abu Mudalala, an economic analyst and head of the Department of Economics at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
“In the 1950s and 60s, Palestine was known as an exporter of educated and highly qualified people,” he added. “But more than 400,000 Palestinians were expelled after the 1990 Gulf War and came back to Palestine where most of them did not find jobs.”
Abu Mudalala said 110,000 university graduates in Gaza are unemployed. And it was this that was spurring many on to get out.
“The numbers are dangerous,” Abu Mudalala said. “The Palestinian economy will suffer from a shortage of people who may be able to develop the national economy and increase GDP. At the same time, we will face a political challenge because instead of sticking to their land, educated Palestinians look forward to leaving it.”
Jamal al-Sharif, a sociologist and head of the English Department at Al-Azhar University, said the number of advanced degree holders is rising continuously in Gaza but with only the same number of universities and therefore job opportunities.
“Every day I receive CVs from highly qualified people looking for work. Some have a master’s degree, some a double master’s or PhD, but the department is full and budgets are very limited,” he said.
“This situation is forcing many educated Gazans to leave seeking a chance of self-realization. If it continues, students will hesitate to pursue postgraduate studies,” al-Sharif added.
The pursuit of meaning
The three-day opening in February saw 2,439 people leave Gaza, 1,122 return and more than 330 turned back by the Egyptian border authorities, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
They stayed in the Abu Najjar Sports Hall in Rafah, a makeshift waiting hall, for hours and days, the young, the old, the infirm and the educated. Names were called according to lists published by the Ministry of Transportation. The lucky few got into buses and waited for more hours before heading to the actual crossing.
Among them was Salma Ahmad, a 31-year-old former lecturer at Al-Azhar University. Ahmed, who earned a master’s degree from a French university in 2008, is a mother of two sons: Tayseer, 5, and Ahmad, 3, both with her that day.
In March 2015, Ahmad’s husband, Muhammad al-Amassi, had traveled to Turkey to earn his PhD in engineering. He had been delayed himself for more than a semester, waiting for the crossing to open.
After three months, al-Amassi, a graduate of the Islamic University of Gaza in 2011, sent an invitation to his family to join him in Turkey.
Ahmed eagerly jumped at the opportunity.
“I completed the visa procedures, put our names on the lists of the Rafah crossing and even tried to get permission to go through Erez to Jordan,” she said.
But their timing was bad. Since they received the invitation, the Rafah crossing was opened only twice and Ahmad and her sons could not leave because of the sheer volume of those wishing to travel.
“Meanwhile, our permission to leave from Erez was refused because such permissions are just given for medical and educational reasons,” she added.
“Our visa expired and I renewed it, but my life became meaningless,” Ahmad said. “I couldn’t make any decision. I stopped teaching at the university because I was not sure when and how I would leave. In fact, I just waited for Rafah to open.”
After eight months, Ahmad almost lost hope. “I started taking Turkish lessons, but I also enrolled my son in a kindergarten. I really can’t believe that we are leaving today.”
Job or education
It took 16 hours, but Ahmad and her sons were eventually allowed to cross to Egypt. So too was Salma Adnan, 29, a project coordinator at the Tamer Institute for Community Education and a part-time lecturer at Al-Azhar University. But the choice was forced on her.
“In 2009, I traveled to Egypt in order to earn a master’s degree in literature from Cairo University. After passing the first year, I came back to Gaza to prepare for my thesis about African-American literature,” she said.
But by then the Rafah crossing was already becoming harder to cross. For years, Adnan tried and failed to get out. In the meantime, she settled in with a job and slowly saw her dream of a post-graduate degree fade.
Then last year she was warned that if she did not get to Cairo for her thesis defense by the end of February, she would lose her degree. She also knew, that if she left, she would likely lose her job.
She made her choice.
“It’s like a miracle,” she said. “I’ve had my name on the list since last July, and now I’m leaving just a few days before losing my degree.”
Mousa Tawfiq is a journalist based in Gaza.