Families celebrate academic excellence amidst the siege

Abeer Shawish receives congratulations from her mother Umm Abed, at their family home in the Gaza Strip. (Rami Almeghari)


The Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education announced the results of the annual tawjihi — the general secondary school examination — on 21 July. Graduating high school students take exams either in the science stream or humanities stream, with those getting the highest grades best able to compete for university places.

It was the first time since Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 that the Ministry announced result for both the West Bank and Gaza. In spite of Israel’s 25-month siege and brutal winter invasion of Gaza, students in the tiny coastal territory must find time to study for the exam.

Abeer Abu Shawish, 18, achieved the highest score on the humanities exam in all of Gaza. Abeer lives with her family in the Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. Her father and three brothers are all unemployed. Abeer and her five sisters assist her mother, who is a homemaker, with the household chores.

Sitting cheerfully at home, Abeer explained that “I cannot describe my feelings today. I feel like I am flying. I am excited. I am overwhelmed!” She added, “I used to study 10 hours a day, since the beginning of the school year last September. And now I am harvesting the fruits.”

Surrounded by her family, Abeer greeted the many visitors who came to offer their congratulations on Tuesday. She explained that, “We are an ordinary Palestinian family. We were raised by our now ailing father, who taught us how to succeed in school.” She added that her sister Nour received the highest score in Gaza in 2006, and her sister Amal the fifth highest score in 1999.

During Israel’s invasion, Abeer like other Gaza residents lived in a constant state of fear and uncertainty. Yet, she found time to study and prepare for the exam. She explained that, “Prior to the war in late December 2008, I had a plan for studying for the tawjihi. One day, in the middle of the war, I heard shelling nearby at 11:00pm. However, I took a long deep breath and continued my studies. Although I was extremely upset by the Israeli attacks from air, sea and land, I told myself that I must succeed in order to fight the Israeli occupation with my own way, education!”

Abeer’s mother, Umm Abed, expressed her extreme joy at Abeer’s results. She said, “Thank God for this great success, Abeer is my fourth daughter and her other sisters, Nour and Amal, got similar results in previous years.” Umm Abed added, “God willing, my daughter will pursue her education under better conditions.”

Mousa Nashwan, a close friend of the family, voiced his appreciation for Abeer’s success amidst their “dire conditions.” He explained, “I am really very happy for them. My dear friend Abu al-Abed — Abeer’s father — who is now ailing, has nothing to live on. He has one daughter who is a teacher, she is the only one who helps them.”

Another Palestinian home in the Maghazi refugee camp was celebrating on Tuesday. Amna Mousa received the second highest grade in Gaza on the humanities section of the tawjihi. Amna explained that, “Despite the circumstances, including frequent Israeli attacks, the Israeli siege as well as the political rift here, I was determined to achieve success.” She added that, “After the recent Israeli war, I had to reschedule my study time and now I am so happy for the outcome. I dedicate this to the victims of the last war, to Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails, and to prime minister Ismail Haniyeh.”

While embracing his daughter, Amna’s father explained that, “I am proud of Amna, thank God. I have been expecting this success for Amna even more than she was. Sometimes, I used to have pity on her, telling her to get some more sleep.”

Abeer and Amna’s success provides hope for everyone in Gaza that amidst the siege and deprivation, excellence and even joy can be found.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.