Every year, Tunisia reserves 250 places at its universities for Palestinians. Palestinians currently studying in Tunisia who have family in Gaza have desperately tried to keep in touch with their families in the last week as they endure indiscriminate aerial bombings by Israel on densely-populated civilian neighborhoods as well as Israel cutting the water, electricity, and communications networks.
26-year-old Ahmed Kamel Grinaoui arrived in Tunis in 2021 to start a master’s degree in Arabic literature. He is also an artist with a focus on music and lute-playing. When Israel’s bombings began on October 7, 2023, his family in the Bureij camp south of Gaza city initially refused to leave their family home despite “brutal bombardment.” But then, Israel “showered us with white phosphorus weapons,” Grinaoui said.
White phosphorus burns down to the bone and can cause multiple organ failure and has been used regularly by the Israeli and U.S. military in densely populated civilian areas. Human rights groups have condemned its use.
According to Grinaoui, Israeli forces “threatened further if families resisted evacuation, which many ultimately had to succumb to.”
“They left behind our house, our cherished memories, the lutes I had crafted with my own hands, my drawings, and other instruments,” Grinaoui said.
The family then left their home to seek refuge with Grinaoui’s extended family on his mother’s side in Khan Younes in the south.
“At least there, if fate deemed it so, they would face the end as a united family,” Grinaoui said.
Life Under Siege
Meshkal asked Grinaoui how his family is trying to cope amid the continuing attacks and the total siege. He responded:
“They spend their days gripped by fear, finding solace in dark humor to cope with their situation. The recent move to yet another house in the south signals that their lives remain under threat. What’s even more distressing is that this new house shelters 87 people–an impossibly cramped space for a normal household. Despite hailing from a relatively comfortable social class, they now face the harsh reality of scarcity. Even my brother, who once held a prestigious job, finds money useless in these circumstances. Even Gaza’s affluent families have nowhere to turn; the south is already bursting at the seams. People are resorting to sleeping on the streets and clean drinking water is a luxury. Those fortunate enough to have some water ration it to a mere 500 milliliters per person per day. Everything now operates on a strict schedule; you can’t eat or drink whenever you please. There’s no electricity, leaving them unable to charge their phones. Their next resort is to use car batteries for makeshift power sources. In some homes, as many as 100 or even 200 people find shelter, making those in a residence with only 87 occupants relatively fortunate.”
According to Grinaoui, he has always been beside his family during previous wars, so being apart this time has been particularly painful:
“For the first time since my arrival, I find myself feeling a deep sadness and regret, not because of Tunisia, but because my family is enduring a war, an experience I’ve never missed before. I was born in 1997, and in my 24 years [there], I weathered every storm back home. Just five months ago, during my last visit to Gaza, there were bombings. I’ve always stood firm in the face of adversity, but this is the first time I’ve been so far away from such horrors. I can’t help but wish I hadn’t left,” he said.
As for his life in Tunis, amazingly he still manages to play his lute.
“Eventually, I became known not as another Palestinian who was killed, but as the one who sings. Palestinians aren’t born to die, but to endure, survive, and create art. Despite the challenging circumstances, that’s been my life in Tunisia for the past two years.”
Still, watching as his friends have been killed has taken its toll.
“Half of my friends are resigned to the prospect of death, and the other half have already fallen victim to it. On the very first day, six of my dear friends became martyrs. As time passes, the toll has tragically risen to thirteen,” he said.
Overcoming the Blockade to Study
Moomen Abu Soltan came to Tunisia in 2019 to study engineering on a scholarship. Since 2015, Tunisia has offered 250 scholarships to Palestinians every year, the largest quota of its international scholarships according to an official at the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education. Those studying as undergraduates also receive a small stipend (although master’s students do not, according to our interviewees).
But just making it out of Gaza to reach Tunisia was a struggle for Abu Soltan: it took him 42 attempts before Israeli authorities allowed him to leave, he said. Israel strictly controls Gaza’s borders and restricts the rights of Palestinians’ freedom of movement as they have maintained a total blockade of Gaza over the last 15 years.
“I returned to Palestine last year to visit my mother and siblings. It was a brief visit filled with love, longing, and a lot of risks. I’m not allowed to speak about the injustice I faced in my journey in and out of Gaza, because if I do, I might never see my family again,” Abu Soltan told Meshkal.
Grinaoui has of course also experienced the obstacles Israel puts up for Palestinians trying to leave Gaza for study.
“The journey back home was undeniably arduous, but the return from Palestine to Tunisia proved to be even more grueling. In addition to the sheer exhaustion, there were relentless inspections every few meters, making progress painstakingly slow. I carried my instrument with the utmost care, knowing how fragile it was. Unfortunately, it suffered damage on my initial arrival, and the same fate befell my second lute on my subsequent trip. Thankfully, both were repaired upon reaching Tunis,” Grinaoui said.
But the journey is not over for Palestinians once they exit Gaza into Egypt.
“During my last journey, I, along with fellow Palestinians, faced a four-day detention at the Egyptian airport. The room’s temperature was a bone-chilling 8 degrees Celsius. Despite it being summertime, I lacked warm clothing, as our belongings had been confiscated for the entirety of our stay. To make matters worse, the beds were infested with bedbugs, forcing us to sleep on the floor. It was, by far, one of the most harrowing experiences,” Grinaoui said.
Paralyzing News of Deaths
Now, from afar, Abu Soltan’s days are filled with desperate checking in on family and checking the news. He has learned of the deaths of family members and close friends.
“My uncle’s family and most of my childhood friends in the camp were martyred. Our house was bombed, and miraculously my family survived, though they are now displaced in one of the UNRWA medical centers,” he said.
“Life is nearly at a standstill. There’s no energy for studying, moving, or facing the world. Each of us clings to their phone, anxiously checking the news, hoping for any update about their family,” he added. “My situation as an expatriate and Gaza in a state of war is a slow death, letter by letter. We hope to be with them every moment, every heartbeat.”
Yet despite being far away, he said that being in Tunisia and his “love” for Tunisia “will never make me feel that I’m outside of Palestine or that I’m an expatriate.”
As this article went to press, Abu Soltan said he had not been able to reach his family for 72 hours due to the lack of electricity and internet after Israel cut these services.