Being Gaza’s first international student

WHILE was studying my bachelor’s degree in the Islamic University of Malaysia I told my Palestinian friends that I want to do my master’s in the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), they told me this is impossible. They said they were unable to enter the Strip even though they are Palestinians.

I kept this childhood dream in the deepest part of my heart; it was my ambition to complete my master’s in IUG. After my bachelor’s degree I returned to Turkey and began work. A couple of years later I felt ready to continue my studies.

I was eager to complete a master’s degree which I could really enjoy and sink my teeth into, not just study for the sake of saying I have obtained this new certificate. I knew I would not be able to find what I was looking for in Turkey and Europe was too cold for me, America’s approach to studies also ruled it out.

It was then that I received a letter from a friend in Gaza, when I explained my dream of studying in Gaza the only response I received was “why not?”. So I applied. I also got in touch with a member of the faculty of IUG who had studied in Turkey and had a love for the country.

My application reached the university rector and he replied: “Turks are our brothers, they were with us throughout our struggles; send her acceptance letter.” The university’s plan to have a programme for international students started with me.

Before I applied for a visa to Egypt I asked the Turkish Embassy in Cairo to obtain permission for me to enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing. They told me that I had a 50 per cent chance of being accepted because this was the first case of its kind. I kept my faith in God and, two months later, I received a call telling me that I was permitted to travel.

The permission given to me meant I could pass through the Rafah crossing when it was open, so when I applied for a visa to Egypt and heard the crossing was to be opened I rushed to make it on time. I arrived in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, and headed to Arish. The journey was difficult but once I arrived in Gaza that didn’t matter.

The weather in Gaza was different to that in Egypt; by just crossing the border I sensed a change. Gaza hugs you with a warm welcome. Its people were wonderful and made me forget the terrifying journey I’d made to get there.

A group from the university and a friend came to pick me up from the border crossing and we headed straight to the campus.

People were surprised that I’d come from abroad to study at their university and I heard time and again: “You’ve honoured us.” Everyone made me feel at home in my new surroundings.

When I enrolled in my courses lecturers were very accommodating going through the subject matter in both English and Arabic to ensure I understood. They also help me improve my Arabic language skills. I struggled at first, at home I’d learnt Quranic Arabic, here they used a more colloquial dialect which I didn’t fully comprehend at times.

People’s hospitality means I am never worried about what I was going to eat, I am regularly invited to people’s houses, everyone is so hospitable and generous. Occasionally I find a restaurant and enjoy eating out. The food throughout the Strip, from Rafah, in the south, to Jabalia, in the north, is great.

I am now staying in Jabalia, approximately 20 mins from Gaza City which was home to my university. Unfortunately, I don’t drive so it wasn’t a short trip for me. I had to use three modes of transport to get to university including a shared minicab.

I had been warned about the cost of rent and the high cost of living which had been compared to prices in Istanbul, but I am finding life in Gaza is cheaper than that in Turkey. The area looks dated, like my hometown of Diyarbakir looked in the 1990s. But this is an amazing feat for a city that has survived three wars. The beauty of Khan Yunis and Rafah made me reminisce about life in Turkey but the Gaza air and the olive, lemon, date and palm gardens all brought me back to appreciating the beauty of my surroundings.

The beautiful fields weren’t the only relaxing aspect of life in Gaza. During my free time I often go to the beach to enjoy the sea breeze and watch the waves crash onto the shore. There are also a large number of charities and organisations that support the community, orphans and victims of war. Sports complexes are numerous in the Strip so there is always something to do but nothing beats running along the beach.

Things were different for me the first time I experienced the bombardments. On my first night in Gaza there were two rocket attacks. I could feel my body freeze. By morning I had recovered and when I told my friends about my experience they laughed, it was nothing they told me, they’d experienced 76 in one night!

I quickly learnt to do as Gazans do when there’s a bombing.

Once I was in class and 35 rockets attacked the area. I had had plans to have dinner with my friend’s family and these were plans I didn’t cancel. We ate under bombardment. This is daily life in Gaza and even babies are getting used to the sounds and situation.

When I’d call to check on my friends following the bombings they’d reply with surprise: “This is normal, we are used to this, don’t worry.”

I have now been in Gaza for more than 40 days, my Arab language skills have improved significantly, and because of the delicious food on offer my waistline has also been affected!

Every day I love Gaza more and am thankful I’m here.

I’ve never felt so much peace in all my life.

This article was first published in Middle East Monitor

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