Children growing up in the Gaza Strip face daily challenges to their ability to obtain an education and enjoy the basic human rights that all children throughout the world deserve. But these challenges do not deter the many students in UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools who study hard—day in and day out—to learn and thrive in this challenging environment.
Ruba Rafat Al-Qedra and Nour Al Hoda Rafat Mohamed El Shear, two ninth-grade UNRWA students, exemplify this determination. Both have been named winners of the 2014 Inspirational Messages of Peace Contest by the US National Park Service and International World Peace Rose Gardens. The competition celebrates messages of peace written by youth throughout the world. More than 1,900 students participated in the competition this year, including students from China, India, Gaza, Mexico and the United States.
“I was thrilled when I heard of this honour, which I hope will put the spotlight on the next generation in Gaza, our hopes, our expectations and our dreams”, said Nour.
The awards ceremony, held on 8 May 2014 at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, is unfortunately out of reach for these two young Palestine refugees Due to the movement restrictions placed on the Gaza Strip, travel outside of the enclave is severely restricted. Engraved plaques with the students’ messages will be displayed in the rose gardens for one year. With over 700,000 visitors every year, it is quite an honour for these two ninth graders and their messages of peace to be recognized in such a way.
In noting their success, co-creators of the International World Peace Gardens TJ David and Sylvia Villalobos said that these students’ “messages reflect their deep and thoughtful understanding of peace”, noting, “it has been our privilege to work with UNRWA schools in Gaza over the past four years.”
UNRWA has a long-standing commitment, as a UN agency, to teach students about the foundations of human rights and the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With the support of the United States Department of State, UNRWA integrates human rights concepts throughout its more than 700 schools through its Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance (HRCRT) education programme. In Gaza, UNRWA, supported by the Government of Norway, has implemented a strong human rights curriculum in its 245 schools. Every week, all 225,098 students in grades one through nine take a stand-alone human rights class teaching tolerance and respect for human rights.
Robert Turner, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, explained: “UNRWA is committed to teaching the values enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights as an integral part of its curriculum. We are very pleased these two students have been able to convey their messages of peace from Gaza to the outside world, showing how the children of Gaza dream to enjoy their human rights in a peaceful manner, as do children everywhere.”
In coordination with the US Department of State, in 2013, two delegations of UNRWA students aged 11-13 traveled to the United States to learn about human rights and the history of the civil rights movement in America. All of these students were the presidents of their school student parliaments and the top scholars from their human rights courses. They were selected for the prestigious honour after competing through essays and interviews, demonstrating their knowledge of the values enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights.
In fact, one of the winners of the 2014 poetry contest, Ruba, was a participant in last year’s trip. As part of the trip, Ruba visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, where the plaque celebrating her message of peace will be displayed. During the visit, the youth discussed past winners of the poetry contest, noting how previous students from UNRWA schools in Gaza have won the prestigious competition. “Having had the opportunity to visit the peace garden only last year, I am happy that my message of peace from Gaza will be shared with future visitors,” said Ruba.
Matthew Reynolds, Director of the UNRWA Washington office, traveled with the youth to Atlanta and noted that “The students were able to have a discussion with MLK Jr. Center staff in the peace garden, which was a rewarding experience for the kids and complemented their human rights studies. We at UNRWA and the students we serve sincerely appreciate the strong commitment to the Agency by the US Department of State, particularly with regards to teaching UN values and helping to ensure children throughout the Gaza Strip are able to enjoy their human rights to the best of their ability.”
Like a river running through a barren land
Like rain falling over a desert
Like a flower watered with love and equality
It is reconciliation in time of dispute
Like fresh air in the midst of pollution
Peace is the rose of human rights
By Ruba, UNRWA Preparatory School, Khan Younis
“Start With Yourself First”
Change yourself before changing others
Love and help yourself
before loving and helping others
For you cannot get blood out of a stone
Earth embraces us all
Let your power of love conquer the love of power
… Then peace prevails
By Nour, UNRWA Preparatory School, Rafah