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8,000 Palestinian Students Stranded Abroad by COVID Closures

Families pressure PA to bring their children home, despite its lack of an airport or control over land borders

Dozens of families of Palestinian students stranded abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic protested in downtown Ramallah on Monday, demanding the return of their loved ones to the West Bank.

The protesters carried posters addressed to the Palestinian Authority government that read: “You returned your children [home], return our children [to us].” The families also called for PA officials whom they said were responsible for the delay to be held to account.

Ibrahim Melhem, the PA government spokesperson, told a press conference on Sunday evening that on June 21, the government would start evacuating the first group of the stranded Palestinians from Egypt.

There are about 1,500 Palestinians in Egypt who want to come home, Melhem said, adding that “there are another 6,500 people stuck in various countries of the world, and coordination is being conducted with Jordan to evacuate them on Royal Jordanian planes [to Amman, and then by road to the West Bank].”

Samah Hussein, whose daughter Selena is in Malta, was at the protest in Ramallah’s al-Manara Square. She told The Media Line that the families demanded a clear plan and mechanism regarding the government announcement, and hoped that it was not just designed to calm down the parents like the previous promise.

“The government promised us that on June 10 there would be coordination [on returning the students], and it managed to keep us numb for the months of April and May, for nothing,” Hussein said. “We demand that the government, today, take the issue of the 6,500 students abroad, our children, seriously and consider it a priority, and not only for the 120 students that the government spoke of yesterday. Also, we would like to know on what basis the government chose those 120 students.”

She added that the families did understand that the government was trying to coordinate a solution to the problem, and that the occupation made this more difficult, but that as parents they could not accept false promises, “especially after the PA did it again and made a new promise yesterday.

We demand that the government, today, take the issue of the 6,500 students abroad, our children, seriously and consider it a priority

“We trust our government and we need it more than ever, but we are talking here about our children, and we need all of our children to come home. They [the PA] can pressure the Israeli side and take advantage of the Jordanian offer to help,” the concerned mother said.

Selena Hussein, a 20-year-old studying finance at the University of Malta for a semester as part of an exchange program with Birzeit University, told The Media Line that as the whole world came under attack from the novel coronavirus, she realized that she would be stranded. And as a Palestinian, Selena was sure it would take longer for her than for others to get home.

“I finished my course and literally have nothing to do except wishing to go home. Emotionally I feel down, as so many of my friends from different nationalities were brought home by their governments, while I’ve been waiting ever since March,” she said. “It’s so hard to count the days while waiting to know when we will able to return. There has never been a time in my life when I felt so down, longing to return to my country and, as a Palestinian, unable to do anything except wait.”

Mohammed al-Hroub, whose son Yazan is in Egypt, told The Media Line that as a parent he felt fear, worry and anticipation, with his son at risk, given the overpopulation and the high number of COVID-19 infections in Egypt.

“The information provided by the government isn’t very clear, and every two days, they announce new infections among Palestinians abroad, which puts us in a state of fear,” Hroub said. “Yazan is confused over there, especially after the government announced that they would be evacuated on June 10 and I bought him a ticket despite the high price, and then nothing happened.”

Hroub added that he understood the PA had a tough problem to solve, made more difficult by the need for coordination by three countries and the pressures created by the severance of ties with Israel, which controlled the borders, “but there are about 1,600 students in Egypt, and we need to know when they are coming back.”

Yazan al-Hroub told The Media Line that he faced very difficult circumstances, where he was scared, confused and out of options.

“Previously, I bought my ticket thinking that I will be home on June 10, and then I found out that’s not happening. I was really down, and now I’m just waiting on the government to tell me when I can return to be with my family, during such a crisis and pandemic that I never imagined I would witness in my life.”

Adla al-Nazer, the eldest sister of Yara, who is studying international relations and organizations at Leiden University in Holland, told The Media Line that she completely understood the position of the PA government, especially since it did not have an airport and using Israel’s would require coordination, which was not possible after the PA cut ties with Israel.

At the same time, she pointed out that opening the land borders, closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, would require the approval of both Israel and Jordan.

“The issue here is that the PA couldn’t manage to coordinate matters before the severance of ties with Israel, and it insists on its decision to end communication with Israel, while the situation on the ground is really bad,” Nazer said.

She explained that with her sister left hanging, without any way to know how or when she could come home, the matter was very emotional. “Yara has lost hope that she will be able to return this year, not to mention the pressure placed on my parents when the airports closed; it was a very tough time.”

Yara al-Nazer, speaking from the Netherlands, told The Media Line that life was proceeding normally when she was studying for midterm exams back in March, until a friend who was in the United States informed her that she was taking the last flight to Amman before the Jordanian airport closed.

“When my best friend called me late at night to tell me that she was leaving because the coronavirus had become a pandemic, I thought that as long as schools were open in the Netherlands, there was no need to go home,” Yara said. “I woke up the next day to find that the borders in Palestine and Jordan had closed and there was no way to go back home.”

At first, she was in denial and tried to convince herself that the news was not that bad, she said. “A couple of days later, the Dutch government announced the closure of schools and shops and the freezing of life until further notice, and that’s when my anxiety and my concern started growing.”

Yara further said that as a Palestinian, she grew up normalizing the fact that the PA did not have borders of its own, just as it did not have sovereignty, “so open borders are never a given and the risk of a border closure has always been there, whether there is a pandemic or not.”

The “Return Us to Our Homes” campaign, which was launched when the global pandemic began, called for Sunday’s protest after the PA government could not keep its promise to evacuate the first group on June 10.

Palestinian parents demonstrating in Ramallah, on the West Bank, as part of the “Return Us to Our Homes” campaign, June 15, 2020. (Dima Abumaria/TML photos)

Previously, the campaign called for the formation of a crisis group with the expertise to take responsibility and maintain contact with the Palestinian students abroad, to ensure follow-up of their condition and to form a plan for their safe evacuation home.

Ahmed al-Deek, a political adviser to the PA foreign minister, told The Media Line the real cause of the current situation was the Israeli occupation, which should bear direct and full responsibility of those students stranded abroad.

“Yesterday we announced that we conducted the needed coordination with the Jordanian side to evacuate the first group next Sunday [June 21], and the ministry is following up on this issue closely,” he said.

Deek stressed that the PA, “as a state under occupation,” had no airports or control over borders. “We have made tremendous efforts with Egypt and Jordan to coordinate the first evacuation, which will be followed with a second group on June 22.”

Parents need to understand that we [the Palestinians] are about to face a very difficult political phase, given Israel’s annexation plan and the severance of ties with Israel. Therefore, if they decided that their children should return home, they might not be able to send them back to their universities [after the crisis]

He said that throughout the months of the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest part of the Palestinian embassies’ budgets was allocated to helping the students, assisting them with food parcels and aid money in addition to meeting any other needs.

But, Deek added, “parents need to understand that we [the Palestinians] are about to face a very difficult political phase, given Israel’s annexation plan and the severance of ties with Israel. Therefore, if they decided that their children should return home, they might not be able to send them back to their universities [after the crisis].”