This fall, students from British Columbia are not going back to school as the labour dispute between teachers and the government continues. I remember this time of year when I was younger. In September when the air starts to get cool, I always felt a little sad that summer was over. But I was also excited about going back to school and seeing my friends. I was eager to get new pens, pencils and notebooks. I would plan what I would wear on my first day back to school and maybe get a couple of new clothes or a pair of new shoes if I had outgrown the oldones. It was a time of new beginnings and curiousity about what the school year ahead would be like. I was excited about advancing insome subjects (and less excited about others). I wondered about the new friends I would meet and what new things I would learn.
I have been thinking about how families are coping this year with the interruption to the school year. I have been especially thoughtful about students who would be completing high school this year and what the delays mean for them. I have been reflecting on an interview I heard on CBC about young people from troubled homes or in abusive situations for whom school is a place where they may get help and access to a safer environment.(http://www.cbc.ca/earlyedition/podcast/2014/09/09/street-youth-and-teachers-strike) Whether going back to school is a celebrated or dreaded moment for students, the reality is it has not happened yet for most here.
As I reflect on what going back to school meant for me and what it means in the current context I am living in, I am reminded about the challenges and violence Palestinian students face under military occupation. In September two years ago, I arrived in Jayyous in the northern West Bank where I stayed for three months as an Ecumenical Accompanier. This was a major time of learning for me and a glance at the reality many school children and youth have to face. On a regular basis we monitored check points where students passed by foot or on bus and were confronted by armed soldiers who checked their bus and personal items. We offered moral support and presence ata school that was threatened to be demolished because of the complexity of building permits under the Israeli military occupation. During our term, we visited different schools in the Qalqiliya area and spoke with teachers, parents and students about access to education. The following is an excerpt from some of these conversations that are compiled in a book called Education Under Occupation:
Students in the Seam Zone
By Marie Soederstroem, Natalie Maxson, Ane Bele, Kate Cargin & Juliane Moeller EAs, Jayyus: June-November 2012
The Barrier in the Qalqiliya Governorate digs deep into the West Bank. As a result, three “Seam Zones” have been created – closed areas stuck between the “Green Line” that delimits Israel from the West Bank, and the Barrier built by Israel partly inside the West Bank. Approximately 57,000 Palestinians live in such enclaves, cut off from the wider West Bank. The families have to apply for Israeli permits to continue living in their own homes; their relatives cannot visit them without a permit, which is extremely difficult to obtain.
Families are forbidden to leave the tiny enclaves, unless they cross on foot through checkpoints in the Barrier towards the West Bank. They have to wait, sometimes for hours, any timesomeone in the family needs to buy food or, go to work, attend school or even visit a hospital.
The community of ́Arab ar Ramadin al Janubi is one of these isolated communities, located close to the Alfe Menashe Settlement. The people of ́Arab ar Ramadin al Janubi have not been able to build a school, as it is nearly impossible for Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank to obtain building permits from the Israeli Civil Administration. Many structures in the village already have pending demolition orders. Thus, the children from this community must go to schools in a neighbouring village on the other side of the Barrier, which requires the students to pass through a checkpoint to access their schools.
At the checkpoint, soldiers armed with assault rifles and sometimes accompanied by dogs board school buses to check the children’s documents and bags. They often speak to the children in Hebrew, a language the latter do not understand, and there are reports of soldiers shouting at children because they failed to answer questions that they could not understand.
They may also call an older student to exit the bus for an unsupervised body search in a small room at the checkpoint, while the rest of the students wait. In the past, there have been reports of incidents where male soldiers have conducted body searches on adolescent female students, and as a result,families have begun pulling their girls out of school upon reaching their teenage years to avoid this from happening to them.
Furthermore, students from the Seam Zone who are 16 and older must present an ID card, a permit, and an electro-magnetic card that contains biometric information. Students under the age of 16 must furnish their birth certificates, and photocopies of their parents’ ID cards, electro-magnetic cards, and permits if available. Those who forget their documents in the morning are prohibited from going to school, and those who lose one of their documents during the school day are prohibited from returning home in the afternoon.
According to teachers, this extensive search of the bus and its passengers often makes students late for school and unable to concentrate when they arrive, which leads to overall poorer grades when compared to other students.
Moreover, many of the people from ́Arab ar Ramadin al Janubi do not have permits; thus, they cannot cross the checkpoint, as they would not be allowed to return to their homes. This prevents parents from accompanying their children on their commutes, meeting with teachers to discuss their children’s studies, or picking up a child who may be ill, and even if a relative of a student has a permit, he or she cannot go to the school mid-day to tend to an ill child, because the checkpoint is only open from 7:00AM-9:00AM and from 1:00PM-2:00PM. The time restriction also prevents students from the Seam Zone from participating in extra-curricular activities, class trips, summer camps, etc.
When asked what can be done to help change this situation, a social worker at the school said, “We want to help them, but the real problem is the checkpoint. I cannot make the soldiers leave or instruct them not to bother the children.”
The Director of Education in Qalqiliya said that they are trying all that they can, but there is little that they can do to help Palestinians living in the Seam Zone as they are out of reach. He did however highlight a pilot project that was implemented in October 2012 in ́Arab ar Ramadin ash Shamali, another nearby Seam Zone community.
In this village the Ministry of Education (MoE) donated four large tents to be used as a makeshift school for 24 first through third grade students from the community. Though tents are not immune from demolition, they are less likely to attract attention, and if they are demolished, they can be re-erected with minimal cost and time.
The MoE is also providing salaries for four teachers from the community to operate the school. This means that teachers do not need permits to access the community and that children can be taught in their own dialect, which is Bedouin and differs from that spoken in neighbouring villages, where they previously used to commute to, in order to pursue their education. Mousa, a second grade teacher said, “It feels very good to be teaching in my community. I saw how my family struggled when I was younger, and I don’t want this generation to suffer like mine did. So I decided to go to school and become a teacher.”
The school is popular with both parents and children. The parents visit the school and offer to help. They are happy that their children are near to them, and that they are performing better in class as they have a less tiring commute and can concentrate more. If this school is not demolished, the MoE plans to expand the project to cover all of the elementary grades, and the model could be replicated in other communities. Yet, one teacher says, “This is a remedy not a solution. I hope that in time we will be able to build a school building here with proper facilities and utilities like electricity, water, computers, and a library.”
Excerpt from: Education Under Occupation—Access to Education in the occupied Palestinian territory, Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), WCC Publications, 2013, p.15-17. <http://eappi.org/en/resources/publications/education-under-occupation-2013 >