Sitting down with UNRWA's Director for Education in Palestine...
It is a dry sunny day in Bethlehem and despite it being winter, it is quite mild. I arrive a bit too early for my meeting with UNRWA’s head of education for the Bethlehem and Hebron region, so I decide to sit outside in the sun on a bench. As I sit, I start to think about how I have come to be here and how I wouldn’t really want to be anywhere else. I am able to look over and see the Dheisheh refugee camp entrance, all the hustle and bustle for the morning as people come and go, the usual vendors yelling out good morning to people as they pass by.
The entrance is littered with posters and photos, posters to honour young boys who have been killed and martyred and posters to celebrate those who have been released after often spending years in jail, having been illegally imprisoned. I can see and hear, there is the usual coffee guy, who is the only one in Bethlehem awake super early, providing me the necessary sustenance on my way to work. Without his black, syrupy, bitter coffee, I seriously cannot function! I still miss my Sydney lattes though!
Then there is a guy selling sweets, one selling falafel, one selling baked goods, they congregate and chat whilst eating pumpkin seeds when it’s quiet and become quite a stir when it is busy, all feeding off each other’s energy and banter. The vendors and faces on the posters, all watch over the entrance of the camp, like the benevolent gargoyles in Victor Hugo’s, Notre Dame.
I see people pass in and out of the UNRWA centre, it is a huge medical centre located at the side of the camp that serves the refugees living in the camp and the local community, it is actually quite impressive. An elderly lady comes to sit next to me, striking up conversation as she pauses for breath on her way in to the centre. She sends me in to see if her Dr is there as she doesn’t want to waste the trip up the ramp if she doesn’t have to. After asking me my name, where I am from and whether I am married, she decides she isn’t in the mood for the Dr today. She invites me to lunch sometime as she shuffles away, back down the ramp and into the camp.
Finally, I hear my name from down a little side lane… Ooops….. I was waiting in the wrong spot! Hurriedly, I am escorted through winding passages and up stair wells, to finally be greeted at the office door and ushered inside to sit. I go through the usual process of declining coffee and sweets a few times, only to eventually acquiesce and accept their offers. I always try to cut down on sweets when visiting Palestine, but it is virtually impossible, you will always upset someone if you don’t eat at least ONE biscuit.
As we start the conversation, it dawns on me that they are as excited as I AM. In that moment I am at once humbled and overwhelmed with emotion, as I feel honoured to be given their time so freely, when I know they have so much to do and so little to do it with. I want to tell them it has literally been a dream since I was little work work with them, but dismiss it, thinking it sounds too naff. Even though it is true.
I come to learn about each of them, where they are from, how long they have been with UNRWA what their role entails. They all live in one of the refugee camps in the region and have dedicated their life’s work to educating Palestinian children. I am now sitting with the director and sub-director of education for the Hebron and Bethlehem region. Educating this area, is no mean feat given that Hebron itself is the second largest city in Palestine, after Gaza. It is not just the cities of Bethlehem and Hebron they cater to either, it includes all the rural villages in that municipality, that dot along the map joining the two key cities together.
So here are the key stats- let’s keep this simple!
There are approximately 522,000 Palestinian Refugee children - Inside and Outside of Palestine needing needing education from UNRWA.
Within the UNRWA school network, girls comprise 52% of the students attending- which is great that more than half the students in school are females. We use this figure to determine gender equality in education.
Out of all the schools in the region, it is the UNRWA schools that achieve the highest academic performance and they have been achieving high results since 1949.
Approximately 98% of those working for UNRWA in the region, were Palestinian refugees, still living in the camps themselves.
The Dheisha camp is the hardest hit in terms of raids and disruptions to schooling. There are usually nightly home raids, involving children being illegally taken to prison and many children martyred*. This all leads of course to many social and psychological issues for the children taken and those also left behind, due to the daily trauma they face.
Finally, UNRWA helps students with their education by providing schools, teachers, extra curricular activities, uniforms, snacks and meals at school, psychological support, school equipment, and a safe place to play. Many of the camps and communities don’t have parks or playgrounds, so school really is the only place for these children to let go and have some fun.
We end the meeting after a long conversation about the above, and even more! It is clear to see that these men are tired, frustrated and very emotional about what they see on a daily basis. It is clearly heart breaking for them to see their students being harassed and develop nervous disorders and be impeded. It is clear that the fact that their teachers and students will not reach their full potential whilst their basic right to education is not supported. They are weary and need support and yet despite this fatigue, they are sooo passionate about ensuring the safe education of their youth.
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Take care for now.
More to come soon Xx
*When I use the term martyred, this is to respect the family that have lost the deceased. It is believed culturally and religiously, that those that are killed trying to protect their homeland have been martyred and will therefor be accepted into heaven immediately. It does NOT mean that these children have willingly given their life or that they have been sacrificed for the cause.
Slideshow above depicts UNRWA School photos from 1949 to present day and the video is footage of a funeral gathering at the entrance of the Dheisheh camp in Bethlhem for a 14 year old boy killed at 4am during a raid.