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When Ibrahim Alatrash finished his final accounting exam last week at Birzeit University, his friends and family gave him a bouquet of roses, lifted him up on their shoulders and carried him across the campus to the school cafeteria, where they danced on the tables in celebration.
“It was the best day of my life,” Alatrash said.
One week later, Alatrash no longer has much to celebrate. Although he is newly graduated from the most prestigious university in the West Bank, his prospects for finding a job are slim. This week, at Birzeit University’s annual business school career day, he had a taste of the troubles besetting the Palestinian economy.
Nineteen local companies – banks, consulting firms, a cellular phone company and a travel agency – sent representatives to the campus. They spread out company brochures and free pens on folding tables in a conference hall and waited to accept resumes and conduct brief interviews with graduates.
Alatrash arrived well prepared, in all the ways his professors advised: He wore a sharp black business suit with a conservative striped tie. His shoes were polished; his hair, gelled and neatly trimmed. He looked well rested and focused. Tucked under his arm was a folder holding copies of his resume.
But like many of the 200 graduates who attended the daylong event, he returned from his first round of interviews with no offers and few promises that there would be openings anytime soon.
“There are 60 graduates in accounting this year,” said Alatrash, sinking into a chair during a break between interviews. “Most of the companies are here for publicity and not looking for employees.”
It’s not unusual in the West Bank and Gaza to find electrical engineers driving taxis, physicians who are unemployed and other professionals working in unskilled jobs. A United Nations study released this week reported the unemployment rate had reached 40 percent.
Set on a hillside north of Ramallah, Birzeit is the school of the Palestinian elite and also a center for Palestinian politics, but its newest graduates face nearly the same problems as their parents and the less educated.
“It hurts when you see very talented, very active students with everything going for them unable to find jobs,” said Adnan Humos, 44, chairman of the university’s accounting department. “If these students were in the United States, the companies would catch them while they were still taking their course. Here they have no chances. How will they build their future?”
Companies here say it’s difficult to add jobs, given the already weak Palestinian economy and the cut-off of international financial assistance to the Hamas-led Palestinian government. The Palestinian Authority has been unable to pay its 150,000 employees since February, and every private business, from the corner barber shop to the grocery store, feels the pinch.
Nagham Abu Remlieh, a human resources representative from the Jawwal cell phone company, sat next to a pile of more than 120 resumes at Birzeit. The company will hire at least a few people later this year for key positions, she said, but many other spots will be left vacant until the economy improves.
“I’m happy I’m not looking for a job now,” said Remlieh, who graduated from Birzeit in 2003.
“The economic situation is very hard,” said Rami Rabi, who graduated from Birzeit last year and eventually landed a job at Arab Bank and returned to the campus to help interview this year’s graduates. “We have the highest number of graduates in the Middle East, but very few of us can find jobs.”
Still, the fact that the job fair was held at all was a sign of optimism. Its sponsor, Palestinian Mortgage and Housing Corp., was looking to boost people’s confidence in the economy.
“We have a basic assumption that the Palestinian Authority will stay and not collapse,” said Majdi Jallad, an analyst for PMHC who was interviewing graduates. “If we don’t have that assumption, we might as well just close up shop.”
Outside the conference hall, there were plenty of reasons not to be optimistic about the economy. Barbers were advertising haircuts discounted 75 percent in acknowledgement of students’ hardships. The Islamic movement on campus was sponsoring a poetry contest based on the theme “Yes to hunger; no to kneeling to the West.”
In downtown Ramallah thousands of Palestinian Authority workers rallied outside government offices, demanding they be paid their salaries. And yesterday, thousands of Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip held a similar rally, firing off rifles and smashing windows at the parliament building.
A United Nations study released this week reported that four out of 10 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live under the official poverty line of less than $2.10 a day.
“Again, the worsening situation since the end of 2005 urgently requires every effort of the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli Government and the international community to achieve decent work for women and men in the occupied territories,” the study concluded. “The development of a viable Palestinian economy must be a priority.”
Some Birzeit professors gave a brighter forecast, with a significant caveat.
“We have a unique situation in this college because there is a demand for these kind of specialties: accounting, business, finance,” said Grace Khoury, chairwoman of the business administration and finance department. She expects that most graduates will eventually find work – but will probably need to go abroad to do so.
Alatrash has already given that some thought. A slim, serious-looking 21-year-old, he grew up in Dura, just north of Hebron, where his father works as a school headmaster. Alatrash excelled at math in high school, earning marks high enough to gain admission to Birzeit.
“If I could get an opportunity to go abroad, I would go,” Alatrash said. “My priority is to get out of here. I would feel more relaxed away from here and away from the politics.”
About 5.6 million Palestinians live outside the West Bank and Gaza, some in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and larger numbers in the Persian Gulf states, Europe and the United States. Many have found satisfying careers and new lives abroad, allowing them to send money home to support their families.
That was the path that Humos, Alatrash’s professor, took in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising. After graduating from Birzeit, he couldn’t find a job, so he left for graduate school at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. He studied during the day and worked the late shift at a grocery store. Three years later, he returned to teach at Birzeit.
When he sees worried students such as Alatrash, he tells them his story. As much as the West Bank and Gaza might need to keep its best and brightest for a future Palestinian state, he encourages them to consider following his path.
“I tell them to get any chance they can get, take whatever job you can find, even a low-paying job. But the first choice for me would be to get out of this country,” he said.