To get a small sense of Fida'a Abuassi's odyssey, start on June 28, days before the Egyptian coup. She had just returned to her native Gaza Strip via Cairo after spending the year in New York on the U.S. government-sponsored Fulbright student program.
"I came back to Gaza, and then they declared that they will close the border until further notice," she says.
Her goal was to get to Indiana by August to start her master's program at the University of Indianapolis.
There are only two legal ways in and out of the Gaza Strip. Egypt runs one, and has sharply restricted crossings after the military takeover in July, citing security. Israel tightly controls the other. Abuassi's first challenge was getting permission from Israel to go to an interview for a student visa at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.
"I thought it was really, really impossible," she says. "Because when I got my first visa, I was denied the access to go to my appointment twice by Israel."
This year she got lucky: a permit to enter Israel for a day, and a quick interview at the U.S. Consulate that left plenty of time for sightseeing in Jerusalem.
"Being there was just like amazing," she recalls. "I was taking pictures of every single corner. I was a flying bird, just like going everywhere."
That was mid-July. Abuassi finally got a visa 10 days before her master's program was to begin in Indianapolis. Now she just needed to get to an airport. The Egyptian border was jammed with thousands of travelers stuck in Gaza. She applied again to Israel, but after several weeks, she was denied permission to use that crossing. She says she felt helpless.
"I feel like my life is all about permits, all about endless papers, all about borders, all about complications," she says. "And I have to give reasons why I would travel. But I've been out of Gaza, and I know what it's like to be free."
The date she was due to enter the U.S. had been extended once and was now about to expire. On Monday, Oct. 7, she decided to try to leave through Egypt.
She went to the border, but it was closed that day. She said she'd try again the next day — if it was open.
"Once I get to the U.S., I'll just explain why I was late," she said.
The next day, Abuassi snagged a spot in line.
"I was lucky today; they called my name," she said, speaking via cellphone from the border crossing. "But I'm on the last bus."
She spent that day in a parking lot, and the next day, too. On Thursday, no students were allowed to cross, only pilgrims traveling to Mecca. The border is always closed Friday. Finally, last Saturday, Abuassi was on the first bus.
By nightfall she was camped at the Cairo airport. Eight hours of waiting, a flight to Turkey, then Chicago. Entering the U.S. went more smoothly than any other junction in her journey. This story tells only some of the twists and turns.
"It wasn't an easy task," she says. "It was really, really, a long, long, long journey; a long struggle. I hope it's over."
When asked if she'll go home next summer, she replies: "No, no no."
Abuassi's first class is Wednesday night, a seminar on international terrorism. The crossing between Gaza and Egypt is closed all this week for the Muslim holiday of Eid.
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