Skip to main content

North Sinai students face extremes to reach their dreams

As school resumes, dedicated students in volatile North Sinai have more to worry about than homework.
An Egyptian army tank is seen stationed outside a school taken over by soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula between the northern Sinai cities of Al-Arish and Sheikh Zuwayed, May 25, 2015. Authorities in the Sinai Peninsula are battling insurgents who support Islamic State, the militant group that has seized parts of Iraq, Syria and Libya. The Sinai conflict, which has has displaced hundreds of Egyptians, is the biggest security challenge for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has promised to deliver stability a

Khaled Ashraf Abdel Razeq starts his day by studying and reviewing all his school subjects, and that's how he ends it. He feels compelled to excel like his sister, who ranked first among all students in the northern Sinai on her college entrance exam in the humanities section.

However, one day early this year was like no other.

He was reviewing his lessons when he heard shooting. He paid little attention, as he was used to it; the northern Sinai has been under a state of emergency because of terrorist attacks since 2014. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion in front of his house. The street filled with smoke. Abdel Razeq, in a state of panic, tried to hide as the house shook. He was terrified for hours after this attack.

After the situation calmed and the streets in el-Arish were quiet once again, he conquered his fears and resumed studying. His dream — to rank among the top students in the country, to study economics and political science at Suez University, and to become one of its professors — made him insist on facing the worst conditions, even conditions of war.

Abdel Razeq succeeded in achieving the first step of his dream, ranking first on the literary exam section in the North Sinai governorate. However, he still remembers the explosion echoing in his ears every time he recalls his story of success.

“Despite how difficult this incident was, it only took four hours of my time before I immediately continued studying,” he told Al-Monitor. Not only did he suffer because of the shootings and explosion, he also had to contend with the curfew imposed on the people of North Sinai. “I had to walk during the curfew about 2,000 feet away from el-Arish at night, fearing that clashes or accidents might occur on my way back from my [tutor]. The only option I had was to conquer my fear of dangers in total darkness because of the curfew,” he said.

Shootings, explosions and curfews were the challenges he faced the entire academic year. Then came the exam. In Egypt, students are told, “In the exam, you are either honored or humiliated,” to show them that a test separates the wheat from the chaff. However, because test papers and their answers were leaked on social media this academic year, students were not honored; they were only humiliated, regardless of how diligent they might have been. The Ministry of Education acknowledged the leaks. At Abdel Razeq's school, there were cases of cheating and some students threatened the exam monitors, who were teachers from other governorates.

“The Arabic exam was the most difficult among all my exams because of the noise all students made upon the [monitor’s] leaving the room after many students threatened them. I was trying as much as I could to focus on answering the questions while confronting some students who bothered me,” Abdel Razeq told Al-Monitor.

Ashraf Abdel Razeq, Khaled’s father, describes the day of the Arabic exam as “difficult.” His son didn't want to continue with the exam because of the cheating he saw. "I tried persuading him to take the exams. … I assured him he would fulfill his dream no matter what."

And he is on his way to fulfilling that dream. Abdel Razeq is now enrolled in the economics and political science program at Suez University and still plans to become a professor there.

Another success story is Nourhan Hany, who ranked No. 1 among North Sinai students in the scientific section of the Thanaweya Amma, the exam given to students before they enter college. She did not mention any fears of a shooting or explosion as she spoke with Al-Monitor.

“Life was smoother this year compared to the past, despite my mother’s worries every time I left home to attend my private lectures,” she said. By persevering through all her struggles, she now attends the university in Ismailia.

Though Hany felt driven to get the highest marks, she said she never looked at the exam answers that were leaked on social media. She felt it was important to know that her success and distinction came from her own personal effort, rather than cheating, which some of her colleagues did anyway.

Fat-heyya Hassan, Hany's mother, told Al-Monitor she insists that the state take care of her daughter and help her overcome any difficulties she might face in her scientific career. She wanted her daughter to distinguish herself regardless of the unstable security situation. Safwat El Kashef, an Arabic teacher at the Martyr Amr Shokry Military Secondary School in el-Arish, told Al-Monitor, “Secondary school students face many psychological challenges because of the state of war in the governorate. Students should be given an extra 5% added to the total of their grades since they live in a remote border zone governorate and face many security obstacles," such as curfews and frequent utility outages. "The governorate needs to increase the number of schools and hold regular meetings with students to hear their educational problems.”

More from George Mikhail