Gaza's children suffer as conflict enters the classroom
Rory McCarthy, The Guardian. May 16, 2008
The lesson was coming to an end, the last for this class of 15-year-olds before their annual exams in a few days' time. The girls are keen students and answered correctly nearly all of the questions put to them by their teacher, Nahida al-Katib, even though the subject this time was the intricate grammar of classical, Qu'ranic Arabic, a key part of their Islamic studies course. Whenever she asked a question their hands stretched into the air and they called for her attention in English: "Auntie, auntie."
Al-Katib, 47, turned to the class before they closed their notebooks. "Work hard, study well," she told them. "I know it's not easy. If there is no electricity, use a candle. Don't sleep in the day. Study instead and sleep at night. Don't think about what's going on around us. Just think of getting high marks."
Her words were not idly chosen. The cumulative effect of years of conflict and now severe economic crisis brought on by Israel's blockade of Gaza have penetrated deep into society, deeply enough to seriously affect children's performance at school. For the Palestinians, who place a high value on education, this has brought deep concern.
The Al-Majida Waseela School for Girls, is a standard state school in Gaza City. It has 525 children aged between 12 and 16, and 22 teachers, all from different backgrounds. In al-Katib's class of 33 girls, most wore jeans under their school smock and all but three had their hair covered in a white headscarf. On the walls are Qu'ranic prayers in Arabic, and dozens of maxims in English: "East or West, home is best," and "All is not gold that glitters".
The school runs two shifts, one in the morning, one after lunch, each with a different set of children, teachers and administration, maximising the use of the site to meet the demands of this most overcrowded strip of land.
On this morning there was no electricity for the first four hours of school, there were no lights and staff had to use a whistle instead of the electric school bell. There was no running water, save what had been held in reserve in a spare tank at the bathroom. There was no bread for sale in the canteen because of shortages at the bakeries, even though many of the children rely on the small school shop to buy their breakfast. This, a result of the Israeli economic blockade of Gaza, was an ordinary day in extraordinary times.
More worrying are warning signs of a broader disintegration of society, such as those seen in exam results. Last autumn, the UN, which runs some of the best schools in Gaza, noted a sharp increase in exam failures. The failure rate in Arabic between ages nine and 15 was between 34.9% and 61.1% . In maths at the same age the failure rate was even higher at more than 65% , peaking at around age 11 with an astonishing failure rate of 90%. That compares with a failure rate of just 10% at UN schools in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.
"There's been a big change. There's no enjoyment in the children's lives, no going out, no picnics. There's a lot of pressure on them and I can feel it in the class," said al-Katib. "They don't do their homework, they make any excuse - no electricity, or they were sick, or tired. They are less attentive in class than they used to be."
The girls tell her they often sleep in the afternoon after school, sometimes for two hours or more. The exhaustion stretches to the teachers as well. Fuel shortages mean fewer buses and taxis. Al-Katib walks 40 minutes to school every day. Classes have been put back at least half an hour in the morning as a result and timetables re-arranged so that teachers living furthest away have classes with a later start.
Al-Katib is unmarried and spent several years working in Saudi Arabia and then taught at kindergartens in Gaza after her return. Recently she decided to take a university degree in Islamic studies and became a school teacher just three years ago. She is already one of the most popular teachers in the school. "As Palestinians we have to depend on our education," said al-Katib. "Of course we depend on God, but we have to get something for our future. An exam certificate shapes our future."
She voted for Hamas in the elections two years ago and would again. She believes Israel carries the largest responsibility for the current crisis enveloping Gaza, but adds that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip also carry a share of the burden, as does the rest of the Arab world for its silence. But she says her perception is that support for Hamas has not fallen. "Everyone here knows the truth of what's happening. The people who were with Hamas before are with them still. Let them squeeze us as they want," she said.
The conflict pervades school life. Recently one of the children's brothers was killed in an Israeli incursion and there are regular sessions with a school psychiatrist for the children. They are encouraged to talk about their experiences, to write stories and draw pictures. The teachers have also noticed changes in the way the children play. An ever popular playground game has been a re-enactment of the conflict - "Arabs and Jews," the children call it. More recently they have found children re-enacting the large street funerals they see in Gaza most days, carrying each other on their shoulders through the schoolyard.
"You can see how it affects them. They are living here, watching the news, seeing how it affects their families," said al-Katib. "They are children but they are not acting as children. Here they play at funerals, in the rest of the world children play with toys. This is their reality."