Accessibility links

Breaking News

Palestinian Students Recount Feelings of ‘Survivor’s Guilt’

Palestinians sit on chair amid the rubble of a building which was damaged in Israeli air strikes during the Israel-Hamas fighting in Gaza May 23, 2021.

Young Palestinians living and studying abroad say they are tied to social media with a sense of helplessness as they follow the repercussions from the most recent violence back home.

“You kind of get, like, survivor's guilt. You know, like, ‘Why is it not me that that's happening to?’ and ‘What, like, what can I do to help these people?’ ” described Mona Salah, a law student at Bristol University in the United Kingdom.

Protests broke out in early May after the Israeli Supreme Court sanctioned the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheik Jarrah, a historically Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Settler groups contend that Jews owned the land before the creation of Israel in 1948. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says Sheik Jarrah is on occupied Palestinian territory, making the ruling a violation of international law.

Hamas launched rocket attacks into Israel following subsequent clashes between Palestinians and Israel police outside Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, prompting a strong defensive response by Israeli Defense Forces. The worst fighting in the region since 2014 left 248 people dead in Gaza and 13 in Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks with reporters in Amman, Jordan, May 26, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks with reporters in Amman, Jordan, May 26, 2021.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the rounds Wednesday in neighboring Jordan — heavily populated by Palestinians whose families came as refugees before 1967 — to buttress a cease-fire brokered last week by the U.S. and Egypt.

University students and young Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank say the latest exchange of hostilities has made already bad conditions worse.

“You know, when you're in survival mode, you're not really so worried about your education, you're worried about living, you're worried about what your next meal is going to be,” said Jude Elrayes, a student at Ryerson University in Canada. During the 11 days of fighting, she said, she checked in with her family in Gaza often, to make sure they got through the day.

“These messages are not easy to read, especially knowing that that could have easily been you. You know, that could have easily been me back there. But I was so lucky and blessed enough to be here, which is something that brings on a lot of survivor's guilt,” Elrayes continued.

Travel blocked

Israeli and Egyptian blockades have prevented thousands of students from leaving Gaza to pursue a higher education — even when they have visas from host countries and support from educational institutions abroad, according to the website Gaza Unlocked, run by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), as well as other human rights organizations.

Economic hardship leading to an inability to pay tuition fees led to a 70% dropout rate for students in graduate programs in the Gaza Strip in 2019, based on a 2020 study by Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza.

Palestinian students who live outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip said they feel fortunate to have passports that permit them to study abroad, often acquired through parents who have long lived abroad. Most Palestinians do not have official passports recognized by other governments.

“I'm lucky to have a Swedish passport, because my dad lived there for like 20 years or something. So we were granted nationality,” Salah said. “And so under that basis, I would be allowed to enter [Israel]. But if I solely had my Jordanian passport, I wouldn't be allowed to enter, especially with the security checks they do.”

Salah said her mother, born in Nazareth, has been stuck at checkpoints and border crossings for up to 18 hours when returning to the West Bank from Amman, Jordan, where they live now.

Glued to social media

Many Palestinians report being tethered to social media to connect with the Palestinian territories and share information with non-Palestinian students.

“That's why so many of us are glued to our phones right now, as Palestinians, because we're trying to do the best that we can,” Elrayes said, reporting that her screen time on Instagram has averaged close to eight hours a day recently.

FILE - A man opens social media app TikTok on his cellphone, in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 21, 2020.
FILE - A man opens social media app TikTok on his cellphone, in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 21, 2020.

Elrayes created a video that amassed more than 30,000 views between Instagram and Tik Tok sharing information on the most recent fighting.

Celebrity voices lending support and solidarity are welcomed, they said. Model Bella Hadid shared images of her grandparents’ wedding in Nazareth and of a Los Angeles rally for the Palestinians.

“Palestine’s never had this much attention in Western media and that’s largely due to social media. Western media favors the state’s narrative, and all Palestinians have are our cameras,” said Aya Ghanameh, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.

However, speaking out may come with costs.

Hadid deleted her pro-Palestinian posts and actor Mark Ruffalo deleted a post that called the occupation a “genocide,” after much blowback.

“I think it is really, really difficult to be pro-Palestine with an audience. Because a lot of people conflate the idea of like, you know, Israel with purely Judaism, and just the establishment of a Jewish state. And they fail to see that being pro-Palestine is not being against that. It's being against that at the expense of our people,” Salah said.

Palestinians studying abroad have turned to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), as well, a Palestinian-led movement promoting boycotts, divestments and economic sanctions against Israel.

Salah said she believes the boycott can be overwhelming because “Israeli products have infiltrated our lives so much to the point where you literally have to boycott everything to boycott successfully.”

FILE - Pro-Israel supporters chant slogans during a rally in support of Israel outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, May 12, 2021.
FILE - Pro-Israel supporters chant slogans during a rally in support of Israel outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, May 12, 2021.

Some Jewish students in the U.S. see the boycott as reverse discrimination.

"We oppose the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement and its efforts to isolate and demonize the only Jewish democratic state in the world," said Nathan Edelman, as a senator with the Illinois Student Government in September 2020.

"Past BDS referendums and resolutions have only increased hate, hostility and mistrust on our campus."

Western universities not always responsive

Palestinians studying outside the West Bank and Gaza said they found it difficult to connect with others about their identity, and their universities' responses to recent events have been sparse.

“Everyone kind of has this experience that the university sends out an email about a current political issue and has mental health awareness and stuff like that, and you know, who to reach out to, if you're troubled by what's going on and stuff like that.” Salah shared.

“But suddenly, because this is such a, you know, controversial topic, we didn't get any of the, for the Palestinian cause, which is really concerning,” she said.

Students said it can be challenging to find people they can share their heritage with.

“I'm very proud to be Palestinian. But it's very sad that up until, you know, about a year ago, I wasn't comfortable just being like, ‘Oh, I'm Palestinian,’ because a lot of people prior to these two weeks, didn't even know what Palestine was,” Elrayes explained.