When Getting a College Degree Requires Self-Exile

Before Ghada Tafesh left the Gaza Strip for college in the United States, her family gave her a necklace with two pendants. One was in the shape of historic Palestine…..

Before Ghada Tafesh left the Gaza Strip for college in the United States, her family gave her a necklace with two pendants. One was in the shape of historic Palestine. The other was an olive tree. “They wanted me to have something that would remind me of home, and to never be ashamed of where I come from,” she told me.

Ms. Tafesh has much to be proud of as she begins the final year of her master’s program in humanities at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., this fall. But the trade-off was painful: getting her education meant not returning home for six years.

In 2012, she faced one of the toughest decisions a Gazan teenager can make. With the help of a scholarship, she could attend college in the United States. It would afford her significantly more opportunity than she would ever have in her hometown. Gaza’s few universities provide only basic academic offerings, with very limited master’s and doctoral programs. Then there’s the city’s youth unemployment rate: 60 percent, by most estimates. But by opting to go abroad, Ms. Tafesh would be choosing a kind of exile, since returning at all would mean the risk of getting stuck back inside the blockade.

“Receiving entrance and exit permits to and from the Strip is a lengthy and unpredictable process,” said Shai Grunberg of Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that aims to protect freedom of movement of Palestinians. “There are no guarantees that if a student from Gaza receives an entrance permit to visit family in the Strip, they will manage to secure an exit permit in time to return to their studies.” Steven Keller, who directs scholarship and exchange programs in the West Bank and Gaza, agreed: “We advise students not to return to Gaza during school holidays, due to the personal risk of getting stuck and losing a scholarship.”

Ms. Tafesh had already experienced life in the United States: She’d spent her junior year of high school as an exchange student, living with a host family in Laurel, Md. The sound of airplanes from the nearby international airport often woke her up at night and reminded her of Israeli warplanes that meant school was shutting down — “you could feel the walls and floor shaking,” she said, describing being in ninth grade while bombings went off nearby. But the opportunities in the United States amazed her. Until then, she’d been unaware of how limited life in Gaza was. “You accept your reality, until you see how other people live,” she told me recently. “I love to read poetry and novels,” counting Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Geoffrey Chaucer as among her favorites. “But there was no library at our school” in Gaza. There were no sports teams or science labs, either. “Our science books were full of experiments that we never got to do.”

Eager for more, Ms. Tafesh contacted the Hope Fund, a program that secures scholarships from American colleges for talented Palestinian youth predominately from disadvantaged backgrounds. She applied to Wilson College and was accepted with a full scholarship. After she received her United States visa in July 2012, she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get an Israeli exit permit to leave Gaza.

Her worry was understandable. In 2008, the State Department withdrew Fulbright grants awarded to Palestinian students in Gaza after they were denied permission to leave by Israel. According to Gisha, only 295 students traveled from Gaza to academic institutions abroad in 2015. Last year, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee received more than 400 applications from students for exit permits for the purpose of higher education, but only 37 applications were approved by Israel. Permit requests must be submitted to Israeli authorities at least three weeks before the travel date, and up to 50 days in advance, along with all supporting documents (like approved visas and acceptance letters). In the first half of 2017, the number of exits by Palestinians dropped by 55 percent, compared with the same period in 2016.

But Ms. Tafesh got her permit and became one of the first students from the Middle East to attend Wilson College. Her freshman-year roommate hadn’t heard of Gaza until meeting her.

As she began to find a community, Ms. Tafesh made it her mission to educate her peers about her part of the world. She’s given presentations on air pollution from bombings in the Gaza valley and the destruction of natural resources. She taught her roommate some Arabic, and together they would Skype with Ms. Tafesh’s parents overseas, when internet connection in Gaza was available.

“I wanted to show my classmates that Palestinians are different then the way they’re represented in Western media,” she said. On Election Day in November 2016, peers who voted against President Trump messaged her to say, “I voted for you today.” When Mr. Trump won, “ people messaged me to ask if I was O.K.,” said Ms. Tafesh. “I’m constantly reminded that there are good things about being here, and that there are people who care.”

But Ms. Tafesh was often homesick, especially during wars (two have occurred so far in her time abroad) and when, during her sophomore year, she had to undergo open-heart surgery for a congenital heart condition. “Back home in Gaza, I would probably be dead by now,” she said. Operation Protective Edge, Gaza’s longest and bloodiest war, broke out in July 2014, during the summer before her junior year. Beyond the fear of her own family members turning up among the names of the dead, guilt consumed her. In Pennsylvania, she had constant access to both water and electricity. Back home, her family could have one or the other, with four to five hours of access per day.

Back in Gaza, Ms. Tafesh wore a hijab and she arrived at college still wearing one. Now, after the rise in hate crimes against Muslim-Americans and a partial travel ban barring visitors from six Muslim-majority countries, she no longer does. “I got too many looks and stares,” she said. ”I’ve worn it a couple of times, but I just blend in more and do things a lot easier without it.”

Wilson pairs international students with locals who are willing to offer support, and in her graduation pictures, Ms. Tafesh stands between an American couple, Bob and Pat Keffer. “Ghada is a very positive person,” said Ms. Keffer. “I know she’s been through a lot in her life, but I never see her down, though she probably is at times. She’s met the rest of my family, she calls my parents grandpa and grandma, and we all love her. I didn’t know too many Muslims, and I’ve learned a lot about the Muslim faith, and that I should be more tolerant.” Though Ms. Tafesh would’ve given anything to stand beside her parents that day, who couldn’t attend her graduation because of the difficulty of getting out of Gaza, the concept of family has taken on a more encompassing meaning for her. “If I didn’t have a sense of family and of home here, I would’ve never been able to stay,” she said. “It keeps me going.”

Ms. Tafesh plans to return to Gaza when she finishes her graduate degree this May. By then it will have been almost six years since she’s been home. Once back in Gaza, she wants to teach at a university and expose Gazans to the tenets of a liberal arts education. “You become a bigger thinker here, and you learn to not be such a passive consumer,” she told me. “At the end of the day, I’m doing this to create a better life back home.”