As the first dawn of 2024 broke over Gaza, the streets that once resonated with the laughter of children and the chatter of students were filled instead with the eery and now familiar screams of victims and calls for help. Israel’s operation in Gaza since Oct. 7, 2023 — 94 days now — has left a palpable scar on every facet of Gazan life, perhaps none more so than the field of education — a foundation stone for the future of any society. Over 20,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict. Among the victims 9,730 are children — the population of students has been severely hit.
The displacement crisis compounds the educational catastrophe. According to UNRWA, an overwhelming 85% of the Gaza Strip’s population has been displaced, with many families moving repeatedly in search of safety. The relentless cycle of displacement and destruction has made the concept of a stable educational environment a distant dream.
Schools As Shelters
Walaa Al-Kafarna, a 15-year-old student who lived in Beit Hanoun, has had to flee to many schools in the months since the conflict began. She is now in Rafah, seeking safety. “Our schools were places of joy and learning, where we dreamt of our futures. Now that they serve as cold shelters, our books are burned for warmth,” she says, a sense of despondency in her voice. Walaa’s story is not unique in Gaza. Thousands of children like her find their educational journey abruptly halted, their schools reduced to rubble or repurposed as makeshift homes.
“The scene now is that I live inside a classroom,” Walaa reflects, her voice carrying a mix of nostalgia and sorrow. “These walls, once filled with the sounds of lessons and laughter, are now just chaos and screams.” She pauses, her gaze drifting towards the blackboard, a poignant symbol of her lost childhood. “I look at this blackboard; I once had a lesson, and now it stands blank. There’s no lesson to learn here, not anymore.”
Ahmed Lafi, director of the Rafah Educational District of governmental schools, paints a grim picture of the educational landscape in Gaza. With 44 schools under his purview, 26 now serve as shelters for the displaced, while the remaining few bear the scars of relentless airstrikes. “The city of Rafah alone has approximately 26,000 students in government schools. The educational stage most affected by the war is high school students, who are on the cusp of transitioning to university life. Until now, these students have sat in school seats for barely a month before the war,” Lafi shares with a somber tone.
The destruction is not just physical; it’s the demolition of a space where our potential was realized.Aya Al-Farra
Not only the children but also university students share similar concerns. Aya al-Farra, an ambitious 23-year-old English language student at Al-Azhar University, says the war snatched away the joy of her final university year. “Only twenty-two hours of study separated me from my transition to working life. Our graduation plans, our future, were destroyed alongside our university,” she laments. The destruction of Al-Azhar University has not only disrupted the academic year but has also cast a long shadow over the prospects of thousands of students like Aya.
The bombing of her university stands as a stark symbol of the broader disruption inflicted on the educational aspirations of thousands of students in Gaza. “Even if the war ends,” Aya muses, “our academic journey remains fractured. There’s no campus to return to, no lecture halls where we can pick up where we left off. The destruction is not just physical; it’s the demolition of a space where our potential was realized.”
Gaza’s media office underscores the scale of devastation, with 93 schools and universities laid to waste and another 292 suffering partial damage. The UNRWA report adds a somber note, revealing that over 300 refugees were killed and another 1,000 injured while seeking protection under the UN flag in shelters run by the organization, most of which are in schools.
Studying Under Tents
Despite all the odds, a small but significant beacon of hope appears among the temporary shelters. Tariq al-Annabi, a 25-year-old English teacher, turns a simple schoolyard and tents into a classroom in an initiative meant to maintain a sense of normalcy for children.
With the backdrop of war-torn buildings and the constant hum of uncertainty, Tariq gathers chairs from the school warehouse, now a shelter for displaced families. In this improvised classroom, children, uprooted from their everyday lives, find a semblance of routine. They gather around Tariq, their young faces a mix of curiosity and eagerness, ready to embark on a journey of learning amidst the chaos.
Tariq, with chalk, an eraser, and a blackboard sourced through the kindness of donors, ignites a spark of education in these young minds. His first lesson is simple yet powerful: “I love Palestine” — words that resonate deeply with his pupils. These words, written in English, are not just a language exercise; they are a statement of identity, belonging, and hope.
The lessons, often held in the open air of the schoolyard or under the shade of tents, are a testament to Tariq’s dedication. “This initiative,” he explains, “is more than teaching English. It’s about maintaining a sense of continuity for these students. It’s about holding on to the thread of education that ties us to a future beyond this conflict.”
The war’s impact on Gaza’s education system is profound and far-reaching. It’s not just about the physical destruction of buildings; it’s about the shattering of dreams and the creation of an educational void that could take generations to fill.
As 2024 unfolds, the students of Gaza face an uncertain future. Their dreams of celebrating the new year with joy and anticipation have been replaced with the harsh reality of displacement, loss, and an unwavering quest for knowledge amidst chaos.