The Israeli and Egyptian governments are blocking Gaza's most talented students from pursuing their higher education abroad. These students have already been admitted to universities, received visas, and are currently waiting for the opening of the Rafah border - Gaza's only door to the outside world.
Since 1991, Israel has imposed restrictions on imports and exports as well as on the movement of people travelling to and from Gaza. These restrictions intensified after the 2005 "disengagement" and were tightened further in 2007 after Hamas' takeover of the Strip. These restrictions have unlawfully deprived Gazans of their most basic rights and necessities and have strangled the Strip's economy, severely deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
The Gaza Strip is enduring an acute and debilitating economic decline marked by one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and unprecedented levels of poverty, loss of trade and social deterioration, particularly with regard to educational services.
Gaza's education system has found itself facing a crisis. The damage to the education sector in the Gaza Strip continues to have a major impact on the lives of students and staff. Three higher education institutions were destroyed as a result of Operation Protective Edge, launched on 7 July 2014.
The reconstruction of Gaza's higher education facilities has taken on a snail's pace due to Israeli restrictions on construction materials entering Gaza.
Students in the Gaza Strip wanting to pursue their education abroad are hit hard by the closure of the Rafah border and the subsequent red tape and lengthy delays at the office of The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israeli defence ministry body that administers the occupied Palestinian territories.
Since the closure of the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing, students have attempted to leave Gaza through the Israeli-operated Erez crossing, however exit permits are extremely difficult to obtain, due to arbitrary security conditions imposed by Israel.
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Ibrahim Sharaf is due to continue his fourth year at the University of Glasgow, where he has a scholarship, but now fears he may not be able to leave Gaza in time for the start of term.
The 20-year-old was thrilled to be accepted for a funded place on the exchange programme, beginning 29 September.
"I was accepted on 19 July 2017, and the deadline for arrival is today, but I'm still here," he told The New Arab.
"The past few days I have asked myself whether or not my dream will come true. The only way to leave Gaza is via the Rafah crossing. However, it seems that this route is impossible for everyone. In the past six months, the Rafah crossing has opened for only four days. The alternative route is through the Erez crossing, however exit through this route is restricted and exit permits are impossible to secure.
"The past few months have been extremely stressful. Each day I become more anxious and more frustrated because there is nothing I can do; it is completely out of my hands."
According to Gisha, an Israeli not-for-profit organisation which fights for the freedom of movement of Palestinians, since January 2017, 362 Gazans who have secured places at colleges and universities abroad have applied to leave the Strip. Of these, 73 have been granted permission, while seven were outright refused, 50 were either returned to Gaza or placed under review - and 232 applicants are still waiting for a decision to be made.
Abeer Abuzayed, who was accepted on the same student exchange programme as Sharaf, also fears that her academic dreams may not be fulfilled.
"We don't have an airport here [Gaza International Airport was destroyed by Israeli bombing in 2001], therefore we need to travel either through the Rafah crossing, which has been closed for a long time, or through the Erez crossing, which requires special permission that is extremely difficult to get," Abuzayed told The New Arab.
"Myself and 23 other students have been accepted for this scholarship and unfortunately not one of us has stepped foot out of Gaza. The last date for enrolment is 29 September - and the border is still closed and we are still stuck in Gaza."
Students like Sharaf and Abuzayed fear that missing out on the beginning of term will mean having to give up their scholarship and their place at the university.
"You cannot imagine how hard I worked for months and how much it affected my daily life.
"I performed my very best in the application process and when I was selected to take part in the student exchange programme, I confront the borders.
"For the first time ever, I completely understand what it means to have freedom and what it means to lose it," continued Abuzayed.
Talks of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah gave Gazan students hope that their academic dreams would come true. It was speculated that the Egypt-Gaza border crossing would open by late August, giving prospective students enough time to reach their destination and begin their academic journey.
Shyma Naji, due to begin her Masters in Management and Leadership and the University of Pécs in Hungary shares the same fear as the many other Gazan students longing to study abroad.
"I was optimistic at some points that the Rafah border would open. I try to believe that my situation will improve and I have tried to maintain a positive mind-set. However, previously I have had to defer my scholarship due to the same reasons that I face today.
"I have become really disappointed and depressed, because after everything I have worked for I have to wait until the following year. Here in Gaza, we are just wasting our time with waiting and hoping that the situation will get better."
Mohamed Saed - who was accepted on the MSc programme in Advanced Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University - is also still waiting for the Rafah border to open.
"I have until October 6 to enrol, but I am still stuck here. I have already missed welcome week and various other events for international students to familiarise themselves with the city and university," he said.
"My visa expires on October 1, so I have to leave very soon. This delay has exhausted me emotionally, and there are many other students who are in the same situation as me. Education is a right, so why have we been deprived?"
As freshers' week comes to an end, hundreds of students like Sharaf, Abuzayed, Naji and Saed are at risk of losing their university places abroad. Their aspirations to pursue their academic journey is jeopardised by the closure of the border and the blockade on Gaza.
Gazan students fear the loss of scholarship funds and the expiry of their residency permits. The next few weeks could determine the future of many students longing to pursue their studies abroad.
Razan Shamallakh is a freelance journalist and MA student in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at King's College London
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