As I explained in a previous post, “Transforming with Colour, Brightness and Joy,” there are ongoing tensions and hostilities within the Old City of Hebron. This violence takes a toll on everyone, but it seems that young children are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing cycle of trauma that they live under.
We were called this week to the Khadija Bint Khuwayled School, a Palestinian Grades 1-4 boys school of 275 students, located in the heart of the Old City. It proved to be a school unlike any other I have ever been in, a school that felt more like a prison than a learning institution.
We passsed through 2 checkpoints to get there, the last one very close to the school property. Upon arrival, we met with the Headmaster (principal) in his office, and then had a tour of the building and school grounds.
The Headmaster explained that they are having an ongoing problem with Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and sound bombs into the school grounds and building. This has been happening a minimum of 3 times per week for the last several weeks, taking an obvious toll on both students and staff, and definitely hampering learning. He admitted that a small number of students (3% or less of the student population) have thrown stones at the soldiers, but he said that the soldiers inflame the situation by their very presence, sometimes going as far as hiding behind the school wall. Once a single stone is thrown, they respond with the tear gas and sound bombs. He described one recent situation that happened at dismissal time. He stationed the teachers at approximately 50 foot intervals from the door of the school to the school gate and on towards the checkpoint, and then released the students grade by grade. Once one group of students were safely through, they would release the next grade. After about 2/3 of the students were out, a soldier appeared. One child threw one stone, and the army responded by tear gassing the schoolyard and the school. The school staff then kept the remaining 1/3 of the students in the building until the tear gas dissipated. In his desk drawer, the Headmaster keeps a bottle of perfume to revive both students and staff who have fainted from the tear gas.
Following our discussion in his office, the Headmaster took us on a school tour. Conditions were appalling – by far the worst I have ever seen. The school building itself is dirty and in a state of absolute disrepair.
The entire facility is dingy and drab, with small and significantly overcrowded classrooms.
The exterior of the building was no better.
The school grounds were cramped, with nowhere for the children to play and no playground equipment or toys for them to play with.
While the physical environment was deplorable, it was also disconcerting to recognize the social environment that prevails in this school. The headmaster, the staff, and many of the students all spoke loudly to one another, frequently yelling louder and louder.
As I thought of the physical and social environment of the school, I realized the impact years and years and years of living in such a hostile environment has had on these people. The staff are well intentioned and genuinely seemed concerned about the welfare of the students, but they are people who regularly live with trauma related to violence from both settlers and soldiers. The current issues of tear gas and sound bombs are yet another chapter in an ongoing cycle of violence.
In the Palestinian education system, the Ministry of Education supplies school furnishings,supplies and staff, while the municipality is responsible for the school building. Unfortunately, the municipality does not have sufficient funds to upgrade dilapidated buildings. For this reason, the Hebron International Resources Network (HIRN) will work to secure funding and organize an update to the facility. The first steps towards this upgrade were taken this week when we met with a potential funder. Others will be needed. It is the beginning of a long process towards rehabilitating the school into a more learning conducive facility for these vulnerable students. Senior government officials are working to communicate with the army and come to an agreement that will end the tear gas and sound bomb attacks.
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,