Every morning, Abdullah al-Siksik, 27, wakes up at 3 am to feed his donkey before heading to work.
For 8 to 12 hours a day, in his donkey-driven cart, al-Siksik collects garbage from the bins of Gaza City in the Al-Nasser Street area.
The work is tiring, yet al-Siksik is nearly always eager to get home from work, shower and start his second job. He tutors adolescent and teenage students in English from his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip.
This is the kind of work al-Siksik imagined he would be doing full time when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Al-Azhar University in 2018.
“Sometimes, I tutor poor children for free,” he said.
But, with only four students who pay him $8 per month, he has had to supplement this income by working as a waste collector, which pays $288 monthly.
It’s a meager income, but al-Siksik uses it to support his seven-member family, including his wife, two toddler-age daughters and his unemployed parents.
Plus, he considers himself lucky to have a job at all.
The unemployment rate in Gaza was 73.9 percent among college graduates aged 19 to 29 in 2022.
The Israeli occupation has limited opportunities and restricted livelihoods of Palestinians in Gaza with its nearly 16-year blockade. And such impoverished circumstances have forced college graduates into types of work they never anticipated taking.
Essential but grueling work
When al-Siksik’s friend passed along a job posting for a waste collector in August 2021 at the Gaza municipality, al-Siksik applied without question.
“My family applied enormous pressure to prevent me from taking the job,” he said. “They told me I hadn’t studied for a bachelor’s degree to work as a waste collector.”
Al-Siksik and his family live in a small home down an unpaved road, with a simple kitchen and one bathroom. For years after graduation, al-Siksik’s brothers, who work as a teacher and a tailor, financially supported him throughout college, hoping that he would find work after graduation.
Al-Siksik was able to marry, with his brothers’ financial support, but he was unable to find work.
Al-Siksik now works too much, including weekends and holidays, and he often works when ill.
“Last week, I felt dizzy at work,” he said. “I asked my boss to let me go home, but he refused. I fainted and spent the whole night in the hospital and I had to work the next day to avoid being fired.”
Waste collection also means having to provide provisions for his donkey, which can cost up to $82 of his monthly salary.
“I wish I could sleep till 8 am just for one day, or have breakfast with my daughters,” he said. “If I had an alternative, I would absolutely leave my job.”
Al-Siksik also believes the Palestinian leadership should be held accountable for the unemployment situation in Gaza.
“They’re responsible for my situation and for all unemployed graduates who also work in terrible work conditions.”
Seeking opportunity abroad
Farid al-Baz, 36, returned to his home in Gaza in May 2022.
He had spent the past seven years studying in Volgograd, a large Russian city that is about 600 miles south of Moscow.
He obtained a doctoral degree in physical education at the Volgograd State Pedagogical University, but as soon as he returned home he struggled to find work.
This was not an unfamiliar story for al-Baz.
Back in 2006, he graduated from the University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza City with a two-year degree in physical education.
He then obtained a bachelor’s degree in the same major from Al-Aqsa University while working part-time as a trainer at a local gym for $81 a month, then as a secretary at a dental clinic for $68 a month.
Al-Baz longed to find a career in his field. He is passionate about physical education and wants to work as a teacher. But jobs were in short supply. He thought that obtaining another degree would improve his employment prospects.
“I decided to study in Russia since it was relatively cheap and top-ranked,” he said.
He left Gaza for Volgograd in 2015. He tried to find a scholarship but was unsuccessful.
His mother sold her old wedding jewelry to make a down payment for his university education, and his father, a retired teacher with a monthly $400 salary, helped him pay tuition.
Meanwhile, his wife, then 32 weeks pregnant, agreed to rent out their apartment for $165 a month to pay for his accommodation in Russia.
He was not able to visit Gaza for the seven years he was in Russia.
“I was afraid that if I visited Gaza, the Rafah crossing would have closed and I would have been stuck,” he said.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is the only way for most Gaza residents to leave the Strip, and since the crossing is often closed and Israel controls all travel permits, being stranded was a real possibility.
“Most importantly, the travel would cost me up to $2,000, and I needed every cent to pay for my university fees.”
His heart broke when his wife would send him photos of their daughter, but he believed the sacrifice of not seeing his family, in the long run, would pay off.
“I stayed patient, but with great grief, because I hoped to get a decent job to make a better future for us,” he said.
Over seven years in Russia, the cost of his education came out to approximately $40,000. Now, back in Gaza, he is still unable to find work in his field, even with his advanced degrees.
Teacher positions coveted
Al-Baz works the same job he had before he obtained a doctoral degree abroad: a trainer at a local gym. He makes around $165 a month.
“I was deeply shocked,” he said, as he believed he would be a shoe-in for a professor job.
“My mental health has deteriorated. My father is always scared that I will hurt myself out of anger and sorrow, but he always lifts me up.”
College graduates like al-Siksik and al-Baz feel a widening sense of despair due to their employment situations.
While they consider themselves fortunate to be working, they wonder when and how they will find employment that is better suited to their skills.
Will their sacrifices ever pay off?
Ziad Thabet, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in Gaza, said that 46,000 people applied for teacher positions in 2021. The ministry, meanwhile, only employs around 500 new teachers each year.
The odds are stacked against new teachers.
“My father paid all his money for my study,” al-Baz said. “My parents deprived themselves of daily meals to send me money. My mother refused to repair the kitchen for the sake of my study.”
Al-Baz said that his brother is studying medicine in Venezuela.
“We always advise him not to return to Gaza under any circumstance, as anywhere is better than Gaza, where jobs are completely lacking,” he said.
Ahmed Dremly is a Gaza-based freelance journalist, writer and translator.