As War Stretches On, Gaza’s High School Students Put Their Dreams on Hold

Karim al-Masri was supposed to start his final exams on Saturday morning, just a few weeks shy of graduating. Instead, he spent his morning filling bags of water to freeze into ice, which he sold to support his family.

“I should have been studying and preparing for my final exams,” said Mr. al-Masri, 18. But, more than eight months into the war, “I’m spending my days working to provide for my family to cope with the situation.”

Mr. al-Masri was one of nearly 39,000 students in Gaza who were unable to take their high school final examinations scheduled to begin on Saturday across the Palestinian territories and in Jordan, and who would not be able to graduate, according to the Palestinian Education Ministry.

The war has devastated Gaza’s education system which was already struggling after several wars and escalations since 2008. At least 625,000 children are missing out on education in Gaza, according to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that assists Palestinians, with schools shut since the war began in October, just over a month into the school year.

More than 76 percent of schools in Gaza would require rebuilding or major rehabilitation to become functional after Israel’s monthslong offensive, according to UNRWA, which operates many schools in the Gaza Strip. The majority of these schools have been used as shelters to house the many displaced families in Gaza, most of whom are living in miserable conditions.

Mr. al-Masri said that he dreamed of studying information technology at the Islamic University of Gaza or the University College of Applied Sciences — both of which have been destroyed by Israeli bombardment. All of Gaza’s 12 universities have been severely damaged or destroyed by fighting, according to the United Nations.

Instead of pinning his hopes on going back to school and graduating, he said the war had shifted his priorities, and he was now focused on working to continue supporting his family. While selling ice in his town of Deir al Balah in central Gaza, Mr. al-Masri said he often walked past his school, where “the classrooms have turned into shelters,” and when he peeks inside, he is “filled with agony.”

Islam al-Najjar, 18, who was also supposed to be taking her first final exam on Saturday, said that her school in Deir al Balah, to which many Gazans have fled from Israel’s Rafah offensive, had also been turned into a shelter.

“I can’t imagine going back to see my school, a place where we learn, turned into a shelter full of displaced people living in miserable conditions,” she said.

“When we do go back, we won’t be seeing all of the same faces,” she said, referring to her classmate, two teachers and her principal who had been killed during the war.

Ms. al-Najjar remains hopeful about the possibility of being able to go back to school and graduating. Despite the “many hurdles to everything you want to achieve in Gaza,” she said, she dreams of studying abroad and has set her sights on Harvard University or the University of Oxford to study business.

“I was very excited for my final year of school and to begin a new chapter,” said Ms. al-Najjar, the eldest in her family, who had been planning her graduation celebrations before the war started. “But of course, the war put a stop to everything.”

“Why does the spring of our life coincide with the fall of our country?” said Ms. al-Najjar. “Is it our fault that we dared to dream?”

Abu Bakr Bashir contributed reporting from London.

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