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‘I wish I had never come to the UK’: Palestinian scholar regrets the difficulty in obtaining visas for relatives who are stuck in Gaza

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Bassem Abudagga was overjoyed to learn in 2022 that he had been awarded a British Council scholarship to pursue his PhD in Britain. “I was so proud,” he recalls. “It is what every academic in Palestine hopes for: to gain a qualification from the UK.

“It felt like a turning point for my career, my future, my family. It would shift my prospects to a completely different place.”

That October, Abudagga, a full-of-hope lecturer in business studies at the now-demolished Al-Azhar University in Gaza, came to the UK to assume a position at York St. John University. His fellowship is one of several given out each year as part of a distinguished program by the British Council to strengthen the academic capabilities of Palestinian universities. He claims, “This was a British investment in me and my country.”

The only thing Abudagga regretted was having to live far away from his wife Marim and their two kids, Talya, who is nine years old, and Karim, who is currently four. The British Council made it plain that it could only pay for Abudagga’s travel expenses; even though the entire family might have sought for visas to accompany him. They all agreed that leaving Gaza would be preferable in the long run, even if it would have been extremely costly.

After nearly nine months, Abudagga is in a precarious situation because his excitement and pride have long since faded. He regrets coming to this place. “At the beginning, I was so happy,” he says, according to the Observer. “Now I am just full of regret, that I am not with my family, when they are in such danger.”

His spouse and kids are stranded in Gaza, where they are living in ever-more-difficult circumstances and are in grave danger. He phones them every day on broken phones to tell them the horrific news of food and water shortages, disease, bombings and devastation, and friend deaths.

Abudagga confronts the same UK authorities who were eager to welcome him here just two years ago in the hopes of convincing them to assist him in getting his family to safety. As if that weren’t already an agonizing enough task.

The officials have informed him time and time again that his wife needs to have her fingerprints taken in Gaza and complete the required paperwork before they can begin the visa application process. The sole issue, according to Abudagga, is that Gaza no longer has any infrastructure, support, or communication systems for fingerprinting. Therefore, it is not possible to finish this initial set of requirements before being allowed to enter Egypt to finish the application procedure.

As one British source put it: “There are UK families and people with UK relatives getting out. So it can be done. You have to wonder how much of this is to do with the UK not wanting to give visas to Palestinians.”

From the family’s Abasan, close to Khan Younis, house, Marim called her husband early on October 7, 2018, informing him of the Hamas attacks, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,300 Israelis. “She said ‘we are now in a conflict zone’,” he recalls. “I knew from that moment that I had to get my family out and bring them here. The rules are clear that they are eligible to come to the UK to be with me. I was very frightened, very afraid.”

Since then, as the Israeli attacks have grown more intense and widespread, Marim and the two kids have moved five times. When Karim fell unwell two weeks ago, finding medicine was a difficult effort.

Currently residing inside the European hospital in Khan Younis, close to Rafah, the town facing an impending Israeli attack, are Marim, Talya, and Karim. “My son became traumatised and depressed by the sound of the carpet bombing,” says Abudagga. “I would ring them and I would hear it in the background all the time. The hospital is so big it is the only place where he cannot hear the sound of the bombing.”

Labour MPs Rachael Maskell, who represents York Central, and Rebecca Long Bailey, who represents Salford and Eccles, the towns where Abudagga resides and gives part-time lectures, have taken up his case.

Maskell said: “Through the British Council, the UK government invited Mr Abudagga to the UK as an academic to study. His family could have resided with him. They now have a duty to support his family to be reunited safely with him.”

Long Bailey said: “This is an urgent and harrowing situation. The government must establish an emergency family reunion visa scheme for desperate families impacted like this.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The safety of British nationals is our top priority. We have helped more than 300 British nationals and their dependants to leave Gaza. A small number of eligible persons remain and we are working with Israeli and Egyptian authorities to support the rest of those who want to leave.”

The British Council declared that it was providing Abudagga with immediate support.

 

Mzaad
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Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury

Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury is the Editor of The Daily Dazzling Dawn. Previously, he has been serving in important positions in all the famous national dailies of the Bangladesh since the nineties. He has played a commendable role in journalism by participating in various events at the national and international levels. United Nations Conference, World Climate Conference, SAARC Summit are notable among them.

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