The latest war in Gaza was brutal and harrowing, not only for the Palestinians in Gaza but for every human being watching from outside. The situation was so difficult that all shops, institutions, and both local and international organisations were closed. Students were, and are, affected the most as they are still waiting to get back to their normal lives.
With the end of war, the same tight siege remains in place. Nothing has changed. The war destroyed everything, and the siege increases the misery. The same restrictions on movement are in place.
Perhaps the most critical case among students concerns those who are granted scholarships to study abroad. At least ten Gazan students have been awarded MA scholarships to study in the UK universities but have not yet been able to travel. This is mainly because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK has ordered the UK office in Gaza to remain closed, even though the war is over. This means that students cannot apply for their UK visas or even travel because only visa holders can travel from Gaza. Thus the students are at danger of losing their scholarships.
After the ceasefire was signed to end the 52 day aggression on Gaza, Omarali Falyouna, a Gazan student awarded a MA scholarship to study Civil Engineering in Sheffield, emailed the British Information Services Office (BISO) to ask whether the office would be open. The BISO replied on 30/08/2014:
"Whilst we accept that a ceasefire has been agreed, we are still waiting a full security assessment before we can re-open the British Information Services Office (BISO) in Gaza. Until the assessment is completed, we will not be opening the BISO. We note that you have an appointment at the BISO. Please be informed that this will be cancelled and you will have to reschedule it once the office has been re-opened. We apologies for any inconvenience this may cause."
(Omar Falyouna during his graduation ceremony/ 2013. Photo by Osama Abu Eltayf)
Falyouna, however, could not apply for the UK visa because the BISO in Gaza remains closed, even though the war has ended.
He has tried twice to travel through the Egyptian Rafah border, as well as the Israeli border Erez, before so that he could apply for his visa in Egypt or Jerusalem but didn't succeed. The authorities at both borders prevented him from crossing as he is not a UK visa holder.
I asked Falyouna how this problem could be solved; he responded, "by opening the BISO in Gaza very soon so I am able to apply for a visa."
He told me that at least ten students have been awarded scholarships to study in the UK but none of them can leave. As his University year starts on the 22nd of September, he is very worried that he might lose his scholarship. The University of Sheffield knows about Falyouna's situation: "They are very helpful in giving me extra time. I have until the 15th of October to reach my university. I hope the BISO will open very soon as I don't have much time or I am going to lose my scholarship."
Tahani Abu Shaban
The case of Tahani Abu Shaban, a student awarded with a MA scholarship to study Translation at Durham University, might be much better than that of Falyouna. She applied for the visa online a day before the latest aggression started, but she could not send her passport and documents to the British Embassy in Amman because no mail was getting in or out of Gaza during the war. She sent the papers two weeks ago, the embassy tried to help, and she may get her passport back next Monday. However, she still does not know if she has been granted the visa or not.
(Photo by Hanan Habashi)
Abu Shaban said: "I have been worried about the idea of leaving Gaza. The crossing was opened after the war, but there are still many restrictions. I cannot register my name to leave through the Rafah crossing until I get the passport. If I get the visa, there will be no big problems. However, if I have not been granted the visa, I have to pay $500 to the Egyptian officials to let me pass to Egypt in order to apply for the visa again. It is worth mentioning that the British Information and services office, which follow the visa issues in Gaza, has been closed until further notice. This caused a delay in our procedures."
She expected that the BISO would be open after the war, but it is still closed and that is why she follows all the procedures by herself. In the case of the Erez crossing, it is almost impossible to get an Israeli permission to go to Jerusalem and apply for the visa there. The Israelis deny her permission to go to Jerusalem or the West Bank. In her opinion, to solve this problem, there is a need to contact the British Foreign and CommonWealth Office in the UK and ask them to reopen the BISO in Gaza. She adds that some students want to go to Egypt to apply for the visa there, but they need a letter from the British embassy that states that their issue is urgent. The Egyptian officials at the Rafah crossing will not allow them to pass to Egypt until they see that letter. It would be helpful if the British embassy in Egypt accelerated this process.
While three students from Gaza have been awarded scholarships to study in Durham, the other two have not even applied for the visa because the BISO in Gaza is still closed. They need to pass to Egypt to apply for the visa at the British Embassy in Egypt - but they need the said letter. Durham University expects them to arrive on September 25th. They didn't give them a deadline, but the students hope to make it to the UK before October 6th, the first day of academic year.
A British friend who prefers not to mention his name contacted the UK Visas and Immigration Office in the UK to ask about the BISO office and the reasons for its closure, despite all other international organizations and offices being re-opened by now. The reply was dated on 15/09/2014:
"Whilst we accept that a ceasefire has been agreed, we are still waiting a full security assessment before we can re-open the British Information Services Office (BISO) in Gaza. Until the assessment is completed, we will not be opening the BISO.
Applicants can apply for visas in Amman but we will keep their passports during the processing period, which means they will be unable to leave the country. If applicants apply in Amman we will fast track their applications. They can also apply in Cairo but similarly we will keep their passports during the processing period. The other alternative is to apply in West Bank if the applicant has access and can book an appointment.
I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any further questions about the situation please do not hesitate to contact us. "
It is worth mentioning again that only visa holders can leave Gaza, which means that Falyouna and all other students cannot go to any other country to apply for the UK visa, as advised by the Immigration Home Office.
To support these students stuck in Gaza, more than eighty five of the National Union of Students' (NUS) Officers/Committees and Sabbatical Officers signed a petition detailed below on Monday September 15th, a day before we received a message from Gaza confirming some positive outcomes. Mr. Kamal Kalloub of the BISO office in Gaza told me on September 16th that the office will be open by the end of this week. He added that only one thing makes them delay this process is: "the Biometric machine in our office that is not working. We are just waiting for the new Biometric kit to arrive from Jerusalem. Hopefully by the end of this week I will be able to collect the biometrics and the applications from our students." Abu Shaban commented: "I believe in students' activism and in occasions where students' officers use their powers to highlight injustice and to make a difference."
"This year at least 10 students from Gaza have been granted MA scholarships at UK universities. At this moment in time none have been able to travel because the British Office in Gaza, where they need to apply for their UK visa, is closed until further notice. We are calling on the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to order the Gaza office to re-open. This is paramount to the students being able to keep their scholarships and therefore continue on their educational journeys. UK universities start in the last week of September which is rapidly approaching and students have October as the deadline to reach their universities.
At this difficult post-war time, we are also standing in solidarity with young people and their right to access to education as enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Due to the continuous siege on Gaza, UNESCO has reported that students are increasingly being forced into dropping out as tuition fees become un-affordable, which in turn impacts on the quality of education provided (60% of university funding is derived form tuition fees). As Max Gaylard, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory warns, isolating Gaza's youth from the rest of the world and depriving them of this basic right could prove disastrous for long term prospects for peace."
Yael Shafritz President at Sheffield SU
Emily Connor, President at Hallam SU
Jose Diaz de Aguilar International Students' Officer at Sheffield SU
Jonny Block, Sports Officer at Sheffield SU
Miriam Rachel Women's Officer at Sheffield SU
Tom Harrison Welfare Officer at Sheffield SU
Jack Wyse Sheffield SU Development Officer
Clio Symington, Activities Officer at Sheffield SU
Malaka Mohammed Education Officer at Sheffield SU
Gordon Maloney, NUS Scotland President
Vonnie Sandlan Women's Officer at NUS Scotland
Shreya Paudel International Students' Officer at NUS
Malia Bouattia Black Students' Officer at NUS
Areeb Ullah, Vice President of Education for Arts and Sciences - KCLSU
Aisling Gallagher NUS Disabled Students Campaign
Helena McCoy NUS Welfare Committee
Shelly Asquith Suarts: University of the Arts Students' Union
Barbara Ntumy NUS Women's Committee
Edmund Schlussel NEC, Postgraduate Committee and Socialist Students
Sayed Alkadiri, NUS London Black Students Officer
Mostafa Rajaai Culture and Diversity Officer at University of the Arts London/NUS International Students' Committee
Kae Smith NUS NEC Part Time Rep/Mature and Part Time Committee
Hannah Graham, NUS NEC
Zarah Sultana, NUS NEC
Samayya Ood-Sigma Afzal, Women's Officer at Bradford SU and NUS and Black Student Committee at NUS
Hannah Sketchley, Democracy & Communications Officer UCLU
Ari Diaz-Cebreiro, NUS Black Students Committee
Michael Segalov, Communications Officer at USSU - University of Sussex Students' Union
Aaron Kiely, NUS Antiracism Antifascism Committee at National Union of Students
Elaha Walizadeh, NUS London Women's Officer
Hajera Begum, UCLU BME Students' officer
Adam Allnutt, Environment and Ethics Officer, University of Hull Students Union
Gary Paterson, President at University of Strathclyde Students' Association
Annie Tidbury, UCLU Women's Officer
Ibrahim Abdile, BME Officer Golsmiths Su and NUS Black Students' Committee
Annie Tidbury, UCLU Women's Officer
Piers Telemacque Vice president of society and citizenship for the national union of students
Abdi-aziz Suleiman NUS NEC
Bahar Mustafa welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths SU and disabled students rep on NUS women's committee
Adam Cooper University of Oxford SU & NUS NEC
Jack Douglas, President of the Student Association of the University of the West of Scotland
Will Nickell, UELSU Ethics & Environment Officer
Harriet Pugh, UMSU education officer
Hassun El Zafer Black Student Committee at NUS
Kelly Teeboon - LiverpoolSU womens campaign officer
Rosie Dammers - Wellbeing Officer, Manchester SU
Noor Khan, Vice President of Learning and Teaching at Official Kingston University Students' Union (KUSU)
Adil Qureshi NUS LGBT Committee (Open Place)
Reubs Walsh NUS LGBT cttee Trans rep
Tasha Boardman Vice President Services - Edinburgh university students association
Kirsty Haigh, NUS Scotland Vice President Communities
Noorulann Shahid, NUS LGBT Committee, black rep (open place)
Shabina Raja- NUS Black Students' Committee
Lukmaan Kolia, UCLU Education and Campaigns Officer
Fran Cowling NUS LGBT Officer
Howard Littler, President Goldsmiths Students' Union
Tessy Maritim, UMSU Diversity Officer
Lyndsay Burtonshaw Activities-Officer university of Sussex students union
Zekarias Negussue Black Students NEC Rep
Sofiya Ahmed, Nus London's women's officer
Jess Lishak, university of Manchester SU women's officer
Kathleen Brook Chair SEC Hull University
Sam Morecroft - NUS PG Committee
Maahwish Mirza, Education Officer at Warwick SU
Sai Englert, NUS PGR
Leah Francis, UCLU Welfare and International Officer
Yasmin Ahmed, Marketing Officer at Hull SU
Rochelle Owusu- Antwi, NUS Women's Committee NEC Member
Nosheen Dad, NUS NEC
Bushra Almari - Academic Affairs Officer, University of Bradford Union of Students
Joel Smith - Activities & Development Officer, University of Manchester Students' Union
Ben Towse, NUS Postgraduate Committee
Tom Dixon - Education Officer, Leeds University Union
Tom Robinson, UCLU LGBT+ Officer
Saifullah Maishanu, NUS Black Students Committee
Howard Littler, President at Goldsmiths SU
Freya Govus Welfare Officer, Leeds University Union
Sarah El-alfy, Education Officer at Goldsmiths SU
Shay Olupona, Campaigns and Activities Officer at Goldsmiths SU and NUS London Exec. Committe member
Robert Foster Vice President NUS Scotland
Ibrahim Ali, Vice President Student Affairs. Federation of Student Islamic Societies
Ammar Al-zeer, Head of Campaigns - Federation of Student Islamic Societies
Subira Ismail - black minority and ethnics officer- Bradford Univeristy Union
Rhys Jenkins VP Education at Cardiff SU
Vidya Brainerd- Students With Disabilities Officer Cardiff SU
Alasdair Clark, Vice President Education and Representation at Fife College Students' Association
Claire Blakeway VP Heath Park Campus