When people think of Gaza, they rarely think of a hub of technological innovation. But for the past few years Oxfam has been working with Gaza's University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS) to support IT graduates to develop and market their business ideas.
With this support, young tech entrepreneurs in Gaza have created mobile apps to help blind people detect colours; developed interactive e-learning software to assist teachers; and produced graphic animations for international companies.
During the bombing of the past few weeks, UCAS was badly hit by dozens of tank shells. "It caused severe damage to classrooms, laboratories, and administrative units. The whole electricity and internet networks were completely destroyed, as well as students' projects," says Dr Hani Khousa, the university's Deputy Head of External Affairs. He estimates the total damage at around $2.5 million.
15 students and one staff member killed
The university has been plunged into mourning, with at least 15 students and one staff member killed during bombing near their homes. "Others were injured, and many of our students and staff members lost relatives and had their houses destroyed," Dr Khousa says.
Like everywhere in Gaza, the university and its students have been struggling for years with the challenges of the seven-year-old Israeli blockade, which restricts the import and export of goods and the movement of people out of Gaza. "It has not been easy for us to provide the university with the latest technologies needed for the educational programs. Students and staff members have lost so many training opportunities because the crossings out of Gaza are closed," says Dr Khousa.
Working as a start-up in Gaza
The project helped Nidah Wishah develop an innovative smartphone app called Color Vision that helps people who are blind detect colours of objects. The past month of fighting forced Nidah out of her home, and she only just returned. "Two rooms were damaged and all the windows were shattered, but I'm more afraid of the effects on my children," she says. Her three year old son is already going through his second war.
Working at a start-up is never easy – but in Gaza Nidah has a host of additional challenges. She frequently loses whole days of work due to regular power blackouts, and the blockade means that it's hard to get the specialized equipment she needs.
"Where will we put the students?"
Dr Khousa and the other staff remain determined to do whatever they can to help their students. "It’s enough that some of them lost their relatives and houses. They should not lose their opportunity of education as well. Education is the most important thing for Palestinians. It is the real investment that can never be lost," he says.
The new academic year was due to start in September, but this is unlikely to be possible. The staff have begun to repair some of the minor damage, but the major damage will take a long time to recover from. "Even if the war stops today, where will we put the students given the damage to so many classrooms and premises?" asks Dr Khousa. "Students who have lost family members and houses may not be able to resume their normal studies as they have to take care of their families and find new places to shelter."
Alun McDonald is Oxfam Media and Communications Coordinator for OPTI