Tawjihi through Gaza’s fire – We Are Not Numbers


bombing in Gaza.
Photo taken on a day in the 2021 conflict. Photo provided by Haya Ihab Sisalem.

In a place where dreams are often shattered like glass, I clung to the glimmers of hope in my textbooks. The distant rumble of Israeli airstrikes served as a constant, unsettling backdrop to my life in Gaza, where pursuing dreams and studying meant grappling with the ever-present fear of loss, death, and repeated bombings.

As a Palestinian who wanted to attend university, I had to take Tawjihi. This set of exams is the last stage of high school education, and only those who pass with high marks get accepted into undergraduate studies. Each major has its own test and score. This milestone is highly regarded in Gaza. All of your relatives come to your house on the day the results are announced, and everyone is in a panic because they want you to get high marks.

I was a Tawjihi student in 2020-2021, when COVID-19 started. As a result of the pandemic, there was quarantine, so we were restricted  to attending school for only three days instead of six. It was such a hard time because I had to study all subjects on my own without any help.

On May 10, 2021, I was having dinner at my friend’s house after taking a two-hour private math lesson. Suddenly, my phone rang. It was my dad in a shaking voice, asking me to get back home quickly because the war had just started. What is happening? Unbeknownst to all; not a soul had possessed prior knowledge.

It was almost one month until the final exams when the Saif Al-Quds war started as a consequence of the residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem being expelled. It stands as the most arduous conflict I have endured in my lifetime. At first, I thought it wouldn’t last a day, but it was for eleven days. Those days bore the weight of an entire year, as if time had slowed to a crawl. I did not study these days; all of my books stayed on the floor.

On the second day of the war, on the last day of Ramadan, we had somakia (a traditional dish that we make before Eid) for breakfast. Unexpectedly, the reverberations of explosions filled the air, and our very building quivered in response. The building that received the direct hit was Hanady Tower, which was utterly ravaged.

On the third day of the conflict, I couldn’t sleep the whole night. I began to nod off at 6 a.m. when all of a sudden, I woke up amid a thunderous detonation near our house. What I remember was that I abruptly jolted awake from my slumber, gripped by trepidation, took my phone with me, and grabbed the emergency bag that contained my laptop, passport, birth certificate, and some money. I couldn’t take my books because they were too heavy.

I went running down the stairs to the bedroom because it was safer. In one minute, all of my neighbors were there too. The attack stopped after 15 minutes, and we went back to our apartment and found out that our glass door was shattered. And it turns out that our shop door was also broken.

Days passed and the conflict kept getting worse. We had to sleep on the floor in the bedroom, as the safest place, and with our hijabs on, in case we had to suddenly flee. One night we heard the same sound and ran again. The sound got even louder. Suddenly my aunt called my dad and told him that the bombing was near his best friend’s house. It was  the Al-Wehda Massacre. It represented the pinnacle of difficulty I have ever encountered, because I saw my parents crying over their friends for the first time in front of me. I felt so weak that I couldn’t help them. Their friend was living on the fourth floor and suddenly found himself on the ground floor. He lost 23 members of his family.

Tawjihi scores.
Haya’s Tawjihi result. Photo provided by Haya Ihab Sisalem.

Another thing that made this war so hard for me and my family was that we live beside the sea and some warships were bombing the beach, and they were too close and loud. Night after night, I eagerly anticipated my family’s slumber, which provided me with a private space to shed tears, sparing them the burden of my distress.

May 21,2021, was the last day of the conflict, when both sides agreed to make a truce. I wasn’t happy at all because we had lost 357 Palestinians including 79 children and 69 women. After that, the Ministry of Education decided to give the students some facilities to study in, and they postponed the exams for seven days. That made me a little bit calmer and I started to study again.

On June 23,2021, one night before my Arabic exam, I started crying because I was so scared of the exams. In the end, this story found its joyous conclusion. With a triumphant score of 92.3, pride welled within me. On the day of the results, I was showered with gifts of money, a celebration of my achievement.

This pivotal moment marked the beginning of a new chapter as I embarked on a journey to major in English and French literature. It was a decision that would shape my life in profound ways, reminding me of Ernest Hemingway’s wisdom from “The Old Man and the Sea”: “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.” It was a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of determination to conquer challenges.

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