BEIRUT: Tala Abu Nahla, a 19-year-old from the Gaza Strip, and Loay Odeh, a 20-year-old from the West Bank, said that having their university scholarships revoked due to U.S. anti-terror legislation was like waking up from a dream.
“We were thinking, ‘Wow we got a chance.’ This was a dream and it was cut off and then it’s like, oh right, remember, you’re Palestinian,” said Odeh, who is studying biology, with an eye to studying medicine.
Abu Nahla and Odeh are two of 13 students at the Lebanese American University from the West Bank and Gaza whose full tuition was covered under the Tomorrow’s Leaders scholarship program, an initiative within the U.S. State Department’s U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).
That is until Jan. 23, when they were brought into an unexpected meeting with a U.S. Embassy official who notified the students that their scholarship would end prematurely on Jan. 31, an inadvertent result of the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, passed in October last year.
ATCA allows American citizens to sue foreign entities that receive U.S. assistance for past acts of terrorism. As a result, receiving U.S. aid of any kind could leave entities vulnerable to suits from Americans impacted. The Palestinian Authority recently announced it would refuse all U.S. government aid as of Jan. 31.
A statement from the American University of Beirut said U.S. government representatives had said “the suspension of assistance to all projects in the Palestinian Authority and to citizens of those areas was an unintended consequence” of ATCA.
The Tomorrow’s Leaders program provides four-year university scholarships for students from the Middle East and North Africa who are unable to afford tuition, but could otherwise gain admission to a U.S.-accredited university in the Middle East. The program covers tuition, housing and insurance, and provides a monthly stipend of around $500.
When Abu Nahla was awarded the prestigious scholarship, it came with the price of not being able to see her family for a prolonged period.
“I’m from Gaza, when we leave Gaza, we have to sign a contract that you are not going to be able to come back in for a year at least,” she said.
There are some students from Gaza who won’t be able to go back until after August, well after their funding has been cut, because they left the strip less than a year ago.
There is also no guarantee of return after this exile.
Abu Nahla, who is studying information technology management, has one more year before she graduates. Odeh has two. Beyond academics, Abu Nahla and Odeh said that the students on the Tomorrow’s Leaders program became like family through the scholarship.
“I didn’t know [Odeh] before. We didn’t know anyone before. And having this family changed everyone’s life,” Abu Nahla said. Because of the travel restrictions she faces coming from Gaza, Abu Nahla said that “the only place that I really am able to call home is here, in Lebanon.”
A statement issued by the U.S. State Department later said that “we continue to work through the potential impact of ATCA. In consultation with partners, we have taken steps to wind down or modify certain projects and programs, including the Middle East Partnership Initiative programs at certain regional universities.”
Sixteen students at the American University of Beirut were also impacted. However, AUB announced on Jan. 24 that it would secure $1.2 million in funds to ensure that the Palestinian students affected by the U.S. scholarship cuts complete their courses up to graduation. Their LAU counterparts have not been as lucky. LAU has committed to funding students through to the end of the spring 2019 term.
It is unclear whether or not they will be able to cover the lost scholarships after this point.
“LAU is already providing financial assistance to about 53 percent of its students. The MEPI decision will require LAU to source more funds to the constantly increasing economic pressures our country is going through,” explained Nada Torbey, director of media and public relations at LAU.
“LAU is exploring all possible avenues internally and amongst friends and benefactors to help solve this challenge as soon as possible.”
Students at AUB have expressed their support for the affected students at LAU. Jude al-Qalawi, a Palestinian student at AUB who was also cut from the MEPI program, wrote on her Facebook page that while she is grateful for the university’s support “she felt ashamed to look my friends in the eye. That I get to stay and they may not.”
“I want people to understand how political decisions can affect people’s lives and destroy people’s dreams without anyone knowing about it. They made this decision, they obviously didn’t think of us, the PA [Palestinian Authority] or the U.S. they didn’t think about our futures,” Odeh said.
But Odeh and Abu Nahla haven’t lost hope. They said they were putting their trust in LAU to look for a solution, and in the meantime, they are focusing on their studies, just in case they have to transfer to another university at the end of the academic year.