By Monica Awad
DAMASCUS, Syria, 2008 – Palestinian children residing in Husseiniyeh camp here are suffering from overcrowded classrooms and double-shift schools. Faced with staggering challenges outside the classroom, children are now in danger of losing their right to a quality education.
Almost 80 per cent of the 81,000 Palestinian students attend elementary schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), while the remaining 20 per cent attend either government or private schools.
Due to the large number of students attending UNRWA schools and limited school facilities, schools operate in double shifts that are just under five hours long. This schedule, coupled with overcrowded schools, makes it difficult for students to concentrate and learn in class.
“I have around 600 students attending Al Aqsa School for boys covering grades seven to nine,” said the Damascus school’s principal, Moh’d Qassem. “This high classroom density is a major challenge for us, the students and their families.”
Succeeding despite challenges
Ensuring a quality education for these children is particularly vital. When a child’s world has been turned upside down, going to school is something he or she can count on.
Despite the challenges they face, UNRWA schools have a very good reputation. The pass rates for UNRWA students taking the ninth-grade state exams in the 2003-04 school year was 96 per cent, compared with 64 per cent in government schools. This example of excellence shows that quality can and should still be achieved during a time of conflict.
At Al Aqsa, students study English, science and math, in addition to social studies, computers, sports and arts.
“My favourite subject is Arabic language because it is my native language,” said seventh-grader Jamal Mustafa.
Beyond the basic subjects, UNRWA schools emphasize other courses valuable for children – including classes in communication and leadership skills, learning about their rights, responsibilities, and how to protect themselves from abuse.
Knowledge, skills and empowerment
“We developed an anti-smoking campaign where many children of our age group benefited from it,” said student Moh’d Fouad Ahmad, 15.
These activities not only equipped students with knowledge and skills but also empowered them to be able to benefit their small community. Investment in education has an invaluable long-term benefit, ensuring that the younger generation will be able to build a stable future beyond the refugee camp.
“I was a very shy person. But after participating in training sessions, I improved, and now I have some leadership skills where I can communicate freely and do many things that I could not do in the past,” added Moh’d.
Foundation for the future
All of these initiatives are elements of the child-friendly school criteria agreed upon between UNRWA and the Ministry of Education. The criteria include active learning methodology, available alternatives to punishment, protection from violence , access to quality water and sanitation services and a functioning parent-teacher association.
UNICEF, along with UNRWA and the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees, has supported training of teachers, supervisors and school counsellors, and provided remedial classes for students at risk of dropping out of school.
For the many children without the opportunity to travel, or even to leave the camp they call home, these schools are a first step towards expanding their world and building a stable foundation for a better future.
“I’ve never left Husseiniyeh camp,” said Moh’d, “but if I did, my dream is to visit Spain since it has many Islamic historical sites.”