Back to School 2021 – UNRWA Students Achievements
From the very first schools in the sand in 1950, UNRWA has protected the right to quality education for all Palestine refugee children, introducing ground-breaking vocational training education, in partnership with UNESCO as early as 1953, achieving gender parity in its schools by the mid-1960s, integrating human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance education into its curriculum from the 1990s and then starting an Agency-wide student parliament. In the face of recurring rounds of violence in Gaza and the now ten-year-old conflict in Syria, UNRWA pioneered a ground-breaking education in emergencies programme, to leave no students behind. Since its operation began, UNRWA has educated well over two and a half million refugee children and is recognized as a significant force for good in the Middle East. Through its education system, the Agency aims to ensure that Palestine refugee students develop their full potential and become confident, innovative, questioning, thoughtful and open-minded individuals who uphold human rights and are proud of their Palestinian identity.
These are the stories of some of the exceptional Palestine refugee students. Each one was an UNRWA student, who is now positively contributing to the development of society and the global community.
Sensor Cane for the Visually Impaired
In 2010, Aseel Abu Leil, Aseel Sha’ar and Nour el Arda from the UNRWA Askar School in Askar refugee camp in the occupied West Bank made history by becoming the first Palestinians to win an award at the world’s premier youth science competition. Competing against 1,500 finalists from around the world, they picked up a ‘special award in applied electronics’ at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, California for their ingenious invention of an electronic ‘sensor cane’ for the visually impaired. The cane sends an infrared signal downwards as well as forwards to help visually impaired people ‘see’ if they are approaching a hole. Mark Uslan, a Director at the American Federation of the Blind said: "Although various types of "laser canes" have existed since the early 1970s, the girls‘ design resolves a fundamental flaw in previous models by detecting holes in the ground."
In April 2014, a team of young students from the UNRWA school in Jordan’s Baqa Palestine refugee camp went to St. Louis in the United States where they joined over 80 teams from around the world to compete in the FIRST LEGO League World Festival. They had already come in ninth in the national robotics competition with a smartphone application focused on natural disasters. In St. Louis, the team was recognized with a Judges’ Award, achieving something beyond their imagination. The trip was made possible thanks to UNRWA financial support.
The UNRWA Gaza football team won the 2016 international Norway Football Cup. 2,199 teams from over 50 countries participated in the tournament. This is the second time they won the event since 2010. According to the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP), participating in sports enhances children’s life skills, including team work, working hard, showing respect, accepting losses and standing by each other, while providing them with a safe space for recreational activities and opportunities to participate in a cultural exchange and create new friendships. The UNRWA Gaza refugee football initiative was generously supported by local Palestinian businesses and UNRWA. In addition, a pitch (oval) in central Gaza to train and exercise during the weeks leading up to the tournaments was provided at no cost by the local community.
Guinness World Record Holders
In the summer of 2009, UNRWA launched its renowned Summer Games in Gaza, involving a quarter of a million children in an effort to help mitigate the psychosocial impact of repeated cycles of violence in the embattled enclave. In the years between 2009 and 2011, the children participating in the UNRWA Summer Games broke FIVE Guinness World Records: In 2009, they broke the world record with the largest number of kites flown simultaneously (3,170). The following year, they broke the record for the most basketballs (7,203) dribbled simultaneously. That seem year, they doubled their own record from the previous year for the number of kites flown simultaneously. In 2011, they also broke two records. One with 3,250 children playing with 175 parachutes, and the other with 2,000 children dribbling footballs simultaneously. Commenting on the children’s achievement at the time, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and NBA star Pau Gasol said, “Your dreams and hopes are as real as anyone else’s. Given the chance, you can achieve the impossible.”
Prize Winning Prose
In 2013, in coordination with the US Department of States, two delegations of UNRWA students aged 11-13 traveled to the United States to learn more about human rights and the history of the civil rights movement in America. All of the students were the presidents of their school student parliaments and the top scholars from their human rights courses. Since then, UNRWA students have participated in the Inspirational Messages of Peace Contest by the United States National Park Service and International World Peace Garden. The competition celebrates messages of peace celebrated by youth around the world. To date, three UNRWA students from Gaza have won this competition with their poems: Ruba Rafat al_Qedra and Nour al-Hoda Rafat Mohammed al-Shear, two ninth-grade students from Gaza, in 2014; Jameela Abu Jom’a, a 15-year old student in 2019; and Nagham al-Yazji, a 15-year old student, in 2020 (pictured). Nagham is a refugee student at the UNRWA Beach Preparatory Girls’ School “B” in Gaza. The selected poems are engraved on a plaque and permanently placed in the University Park World Peace Rose Garden (UPWPRG) in Stockton, California. The Garden is one of six sister gardens to the Martin-Luther-King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” World Peace Rose Garden in Atlanta, Georgia.
Nine-year-old Noor Eideen Nasrallah is from Balata refugee camp, in the northern West Bank. In 2018, he was a talented third-grade student at the UNRWA Balata Basic Boys’ School with a special hobby: he excelled in the field of Intelligent Mental-Arithmetic. Noor Eideen can add and subtract large numbers in a matter of seconds and trained to develop his mental capacity and performance by adopting the “Both-Hand Abacus Mental Arithmetic” method. Using fingers on both hands to count simultaneously, this method encourages stimulation in both the left and right sides of the brain. It has also largely improved his critical thinking skills, all while his fingers snap in the air. Noor Eideen has participated in many national level competitions, including a national competition hosted by the Palestinian Technical University Kadoorei where he won first place in a seven level Genius Mental Arithmetic competition. This win allowed him to participate in international competitions. Since Noor Eideen’s family could not cover the fees for enrolling at a special training centre to develop his talent, his teachers, school and the management of the UNRWA education programme in the West Bank came together to cover his fees!
Palestine refugee students at UNRWA schools have elected school parliaments since 1999 as part of the Agency’s Human Rights Conflict Resolution and Tolerance programme. Those parliaments have been a key vehicle for the promotion of respect for rights, democratic practices, and tolerance. In November 2017, the first-ever Agency-wide Student Parliament (ASP) was elected, consisting of 21 members representing each geographical area from the Agency’s five fields of operation. The ASP is designed to provide a collective space to enhance the engagement of students across all UNRWA fields, help them express their pride in their common Palestinian identity and strengthen their social cohesion, voice their opinions on relevant issues, and convey their views and opinions on various matters – reflecting the specific issues and aspects of each field to the Agency’s headquarters. Members of the ASP have been actively engaging in key events with the Commissioner-General, such as the UN General Assembly, the League of Arab States meetings, and other Agency-level events. In this photo, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (left) meets with UNRWA school parliamentarians in Gaza on 30 August 2017.
Ro’a, a 27-year-old refugee woman, just published her debut novel titled “Wings”, for which she was awarded the AM Qattan Foundation Award for Culture and Arts. “I discovered my passion for reading and writing when I was nine years old. I used to spend all the free time I could at my [UNRWA] school library. I read heaps of books, stories and novels. This led me to realize that I loved to write too!” Ro’a said. She credits that very same library for inspiring her to become the writer and novelist she is today.
Ro’a recalls that a short story entitled "Bulbul," was her first attempt at writing, which she describes as amatuer. The library of the UNRWA Dheisheh Girls’ School 1, near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, was where Ro’a Sheesh first began her love for reading and writing.
Nowras Rahhal started out as a young boy with unique talent and diligence who would end up as a scientist at one of the renowned Max Planck Institutes in Germany, leaving behind his family in war-torn Syria to help a team of researchers develop a vaccine candidate against COVID-19. For this, he credits his family that values education and the education he received at the UNRWA school. “I remember my school and all my teachers. I respected them because they were more than teachers for us, and the school was not just a school, it was like home for us. Our teachers, who were also Palestine refugees and education professionals, were like family. The school taught us all the usual subjects, but also taught us about life and values and priorities. UNRWA kept and saved the traditions and culture of Palestine.”
In April 2021, NASA Mars helicopter completes the first flight on another planet. Behind this historical feat there was a very genius, talented and committed team. Loay Elbasyouni is one of the engineers on the team working as the lead electrical and power engineer. He is a former student of an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.
Ivy League Scholar
Seventeen-year-old Palestine refugee Ismail Ajjawi achieved the highest score in the life science stream of the Official Lebanese Baccalaureate exams in the south of the region and eighth highest in all of Lebanon. In spring of 2019 he graduated from the UNRWA Deir Yassin High School in El Buss refugee camp, in Tyre, Lebanon and was admitted to Harvard University incoming freshman class of 2023!
Ajjawi described that his school was surrounded by the camp, and as such it, “Suffers from many difficulties, the most important being the housing density that leads to the construction of houses very close to each other. In this atmosphere, it is really difficult for students to concentrate on their studies. There are a limited number of scholarships [after high school] and each year the amount is reduced. A large proportion of students are unable to study. I advise all my classmates to study hard and maintain their studies, so that they can achieve their dreams as I have been able to achieve mine.”
Watch a video about him here.
Israa al-Rifai is a 16-year-old student at the UNRWA Shafa Amr School in Barzeh, Damascus, and is originally from Yarmouk refugee camp. Together with her parents and her two brothers, she fled from the camp in 2012. Like thousands of others, the family has been displaced repeatedly in the years that followed. Despite many challenges, most recently the COVID-19 pandemic, Israa is one of 4,289 Palestine refugee students who sat for the ninth-grade national exam in June.
“I will always remember 2020. Many unforgettable moments in my life have taken place this year. Most of them have been sad and scary. But also for the first time in many years, something happened that makes me happy and proud, something that gives me hope. After so many years of hard work, after seeing Syria suffer for almost a decade, after worrying about how the conflict will affect my education, this year changed my life. I thought I was dreaming when I saw my exam results. I managed to achieve the highest score possible, 310 out of 310, with a full mark in each of the subjects. I only really believed it after my parents and brothers double checked for me,” she said.
Prize Winning Sustainability
Twenty-year-old Ghada Krayem is among 97 fellow graduates from the vocational training programme on installation, operating, maintain and programming of solar photovoltaic systems of the UNRWA Gaza Training Centre (GTZ), supported by the German government through GIZ. Trained in a niche renewable energy field, the women in her class are breaking barriers in a field dominated by men. Last June, Ghada was selected to win the #GreenSkillsAward from ETF Europa from among 100 nominees!
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