NewsWinter 2014

“You cannot dream in Gaza”

Palestinian student beats odds to get to UIndy

Fidaa-AbuassiUIndy graduate student Fidaa Abuassi was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition one day this fall, and rightfully so—her long wait and difficult journey to Indianapolis were finally reaching a happy conclusion.

Stymied for months by bureaucratic tangles, political turmoil and petty harassment, the 25-year-old Palestinian woman finally made her way out of her native land, the blockaded Gaza Strip, and arrived on campus for her first class as a master’s candidate in International Relations. “I’m so glad that I didn’t give up,” she said, expressing thanks to many people at UIndy and elsewhere who worked on her behalf. “There are many other students who are still trapped.”

Abuassi first came to the United States last year on a Fulbright fellowship and visited UIndy in February as a guest speaker, discussing the challenges of life in Gaza. She met Associate Professor Jyotika Saksena, director of the IR master’s program, who introduced her to a benefactor who would later set up a fund with a local group, Christians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, to support Abuassi’s education. Planning to enter UIndy this fall, she returned in June to her home and family in Gaza, the Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean coast with no functioning airport and only two official border crossings, heavily guarded, one into Israel and one into Egypt. Her initial application for a student visa, however, was rejected by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and the return of military rule in Egypt effectively shut down that border.

In July, she gained approval to enter Israel for a day and apply for a student visa at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. A month later, days before classes were to start, she had her passport and visa in hand, but she still needed approval to cross into Israel and get to an airport. After several weeks of waiting, that request was rejected. Meanwhile, at UIndy, the fall semester was getting underway. Faculty and staff in the International Division and other offices worked on the bureaucratic end to help Abuassi gain passage, but as deadlines passed, they feared she would not be leaving Gaza anytime soon, or might even be turned away if she made it to the United States.

Fidaa’s own determination made it easier to enlist support, Saksena said: “She’s so full of life. She doesn’t give up, so it’s really hard to give up on her.” Success came only after a week of traveling each day from her family’s home to the backlogged Rafah border crossing into Egypt, where she would submit her name, sometimes arguing with the guards, and hope—under seemingly arbitrary and shifting rules—that students would be among those allowed to cross that day.

“It’s really dehumanizing,” she said. “Every person at the border has their own story of pain.” Finally, on Saturday, she got a seat on a bus that took her across eight hours of Sinai desert to the Cairo airport. She flew to Turkey, then to Chicago, and was driven by friends today to Indianapolis. Abuassi’s parents have been supportive throughout the ordeal, she says, although her mother has wondered if she wouldn’t be happier with a more traditional life in Gaza. But Fidaa seems to have no second thoughts about pursuing a different destiny.

“You cannot dream in Gaza,” she said. “You are busy surviving; this is how you live. And I don’t want to be a survivor only. I want to be a dreamer. I chose to study international relations because I’ve always wanted to make a change in Palestine, in my people, or at least in my life . . . I want to be in a position so I can help.”

—Scott Hall

the authorMarty