A challenging education

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When May Awadallah and her family moved to Bir Nabala, a village located between Ramallah and Jerusalem, they never thought the move would cause them so many problems. The slight, short-haired kindergarten teacher and mother of three had looked forward to the move from their cramped Ramallah apartment to the quiet and spacious Arab-style house that had been in her family for generations and was now being renovated into a beautiful two-story home.

But the joy was short lived. Like almost every other Palestinian family in the West Bank and Gaza, May’s family was plagued by checkpoints. Shortly after their move to Bir Nabala, the Aqsa Intifada began and the infamous Qalandya checkpoint went up, severing the family from their activities and friends in Ramallah.

May’s three children all go to private schools in the city and prior to the Palestinian uprising, this was no problem at all. The commute between Bir Nabala and Ramallah is 15 minutes, tops. Public transportation is easy and plentiful and the kids would often spend their after-school hours in extracurricular activities – dancing, piano and sports.

“We would pop over to Ramallah in 15 minutes, eat ice cream at Rukab’s Ice Cream parlor and then go back home,” May nostalgically recalls. “Not anymore though.”

Now the trip has become unbearable and sometimes impossible. Many times May is turned away by Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint going into and out of Ramallah. Other times she is able to slip through, especially when her children é aged 16, 14 and 8 é are with her. “But you never know,” she maintains.

The family often opts for a long, expensive and circuitous way around the checkpoint that leaves them exhausted by the end of the trip.

After months of enduring this, the family was forced to think of an alternative to their increasingly difficult lifestyle. May’s husband, a professor of civil engineering at Birzeit University, stays in their Bir Nabala home and May and the children spend three nights a week in a rented Ramallah apartment. The gracious family home in Bir Nabala is only for the weekends, when the family doesn’t need to worry about trudging across the checkpoint to the other side.

“It is terrible,” May describes. “We have to bring clothes and books back and forth and I can never sleep when I am in Ramallah. I just keep thinking that this is so unbelievable.”

Since the start of the Intifada, Palestinian schools in the West Bank and Gaza have taken their share of beatings along with most other Palestinian institutions. May’s children lost almost an entire month of school during the Israeli invasion of Ramallah last month, not to mention the time she herself lost at her teaching job.

Between September 29, 2000 and March 3, 2002, six schools in the West Bank were closed by Israeli military order, 166 schools damaged in Israeli military strikes and three schools turned into military camps, Deputy education minister Naim Abul Hummous told Al Ayyam newspaper.

One Tulkarm school – the “Salaam” or “Peace” school – was pronounced “unstable” after being hit by Israeli tank shells over 20 times, according to an April United Nations Children’s Fund report on damage incurred by Palestinian educational institutions as a result of Israeli assaults.

Abul Hummous also relayed the losses of the ministry. “In normal times, an annual budget of $200 million is allocated for the ministry. $185 million goes to paying the salaries of our teachers and employees and $15 million is put towards the operational budget,” explains Abul Humous. “Now we have an enormous deficit in this budget, which used to come from taxes transferred from the Israeli side to the Palestinians. For the first time in 50 years, we are asking the schools to pay their utility bills because of the difficult situation.”

Equally as devastating was the Israeli raid into the education ministry building. During the month-long curfew of Ramallah, lifted every few days for residents to buy food, Israeli soldiers entered the education ministry and ransacked its offices. Computer hard drives were stolen and archives and documents destroyed, reportedly including 50 years of student records. A report published by the Ministry of Education put the overall losses of the ministry building alone at $75,550. This includes $55,000 in damage to computers, phones, printers, photocopiers and electricity lines. The ministry estimated an additional $604,000 as losses incurred by education ministry district offices.

But the material losses seem trivial when compared to the loss in human life. According to the Ministry of Education, as of March, 171 Palestinian students had been killed since the start of the Intifada in September 2000. Nearly 2, 500 Palestinian students have been wounded.

If nothing else, the majority of Palestinian pupils have been deprived of days after days of classes. Cooped up in their homes under a tight Israeli-imposed curfew, parents found it difficult to keep their children focused on the books.

“We tried to keep up with our children,” says Salma Taweel, whose home is meters away from the presidential headquarters and who endured the better half of the month- long invasion without electricity or water. “But it is hard to keep them busy when they are so bored and have to stay in the house for days on end.” Now that her three children, ages 10, 7, and 5, are back in school, Taweel says she is trying to get them back to their routine as if nothing happened.

Nabila Saeed, student councilor at the Friends Girls School in Ramallah, says it was not very easy to get back into the swing of things after losing 24 school days during the Israeli invasion of the city. “The children were very psychologically affected when they returned,” she says. “They would jump at the slightest sound.”

Saeed says that, at first, the children had a difficult time concentrating in class. “Besides, they had forgotten everything they already took. We had to start from the beginning.”

The school, which runs from kindergarten to sixth grade, also provided a forum for the children to vent their anxieties and fears. “We would attend chapel twice a week instead of once and shift the focus to the events and how the children felt about them,” tells Saeed. “It was a difficult time for us all, not just for the children,” she says.

While students in Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm and other Palestinian areas were forcefully kept away from their classes by the Israeli military curfew, East Jerusalem students also suffered from the Israeli offensive dubbed “Defensive Shield.” While their schools remained opened, many schools faced a multitude of problems because their teaching staff é the majority of whom come from the West Bank é were absent.

At Jerusalem’s St. George’s School, just a few hundred meters away from the Old City walls, the Ramallah and Bethlehem invasion took a heavy toll. Administrative assistant at the school Siham Mureibe’ says that 22 of the school’s 56 teaching staff and employees live in West Bank regions such as Ramallah, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala and Bethlehem. When Israel imposed its airtight closure, there was no way for these teachers and workers to get to Jerusalem.

“We also had many students absent,” says Mureibe’. “Especially the students who live in Kufr Aqab [just across the Qalandiya checkpoint] and Al Ram.”

During the invasion, Mureibe’ says the school coped with the huge deficit in its teaching staff by giving present teachers extra work. “We also hired a substitute teacher,” she says, in order to accommodate the teaching demand for the 798 male students enrolled in the school. During the precious hours that the curfew was lifted, many trapped teachers slipped out of their besieged homes and made the school their temporary dwelling. “Even now, some of our teachers and employees sleep at the school because the roads are too difficult to travel.”

Another problem in East Jerusalem alien to West Bank schools was the relatively new threat of bombs being placed in schools in Arab areas by Jewish terror groups. On March 3 two cone-shaped metal cylinders were found in the playground of a boys’ school in Sur Baher, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem. When school officials noticed the suspicious objects just before the morning bell, they rushed the children outside the school gates in fear that there were more bombs inside and then called the police. The bombs went off anyway, before the police arrived, injuring the school principal, a teacher, a cafeteria worker and 11 students. Hours later, a statement sent by a group calling itself the “Group for the Revenge of Children” claimed responsibility for the attack.

Last week, the Israeli Shin Bet intelligence service said it was questioning four Jewish settlers suspected of plotting to plant a bomb in the playground of a girls’ school in the A-Tur neighborhood. Israeli police say that the bomb was set to go off in the early morning, when the students would be lined up for morning assembly.

Whether in the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem, Palestinian students and schools have endured an array of challenges this year. But teachers and students alike are determined to finish off the school year no matter the cost. “We only have a month left,” says May wearily. “Then there is summer vacation.”

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