Back to School: Karam’s Journey of Reintegration

11 June 2021
Karam makes a presentation to his class after making his return to school. © UNRWA 2021 Photo by Mohammed Hinnawi

A 15-year-old child in Gaza has lived through four escalation in hostilities. They have observed the frustration and hopelessness of young adults several years older in the Great March of Return (GMR) protests. They now have to put together the pieces of their life after a horrendous 11-day escalation in hostilities and all the loss, destruction, suffering and trauma it brings in its wake.  When paired with the severe economic impact of the fourteen-year blockade, the psychological repercussions of children there have been grave.  Sadly, for many children one of the consequences is that the pressure has led them to leave school. Reasons for this include that they find it difficult to cope with the demands of school work, or because they need to help support their families through difficult economic times.

Karam Abu Muwwad is such a child. At thirteen years old, he did not think he had a chance to succeed in life. Often left out of peer groups because of a hearing impairment, he never really felt integrated into normal school life.  As Karam’s family faces economic challenges and depends on UNRWA assistance, he was not able to afford the hearing aids and other assistive devices that would allow him to build relationships with other students. As a consequence, he dropped out of school, further severely impacting his mental and physical well-being.

Although still an exception in a society that places a high premium on education, children like Karam who are no longer integrated in the safe embrace of a school increasingly end up as child labourers. In the first eight months of 2020 with the onset of the global pandemic, OCHA reported an increase in 52 per cent in child labour, compared to the same period in 2019. In a community that has always highly valued education as a passport to the future, this is an ominous sign. The latest hostilities in Gaza have already taken lives and now risk stealing the prospects of a bright future of even more children.

In order to address the lasting effects of conflict and economic stressors, UNRWA provides support to students who find it difficult to continue going to school – like Karam – through its ‘Back to School’ project – a cross-programmatic effort led by Gaza’s Protection Unit and funded by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Through the provision of educational recovery classes, structured psychosocial services, case management, child protection interventions, as well as assistive devices and medical support, UNRWA is utilizing a holistic approach to provide to provide at-risk children a chance to reintegrate back in school after a period of absence, helping them find a safer and more promising future. It is thanks to this project that Karam has returned to school and is making a rebound.

“Mr. Hamad [an UNRWA case worker] contacted me and clarified the steps in the project that would help Karam get his life back,” explained Karam’s father. “They assisted with everything. They provided Karam with stationery, a school uniform and, most importantly, a hearing device,” he added.

Overall, the Back to School project serves more than 300 students who, for a variety of reasons, left the school system. Among them are, one hundred girls, fifty students who were injured in the GMR protests and more than fifty children like Karam who have disabilities or chronic diseases, causing them to drop out. Through this project, more than ninety students have been provided with assistive devices and medical support, including hearing devices, wheelchairs and even corrective surgeries. Some 120 students are receiving support to better access digital learning. Using a tailored approach to each case, the child-centred and family-oriented project has been able to achieve lasting retention rates with more than 200 students having officially reintegrated into the education system.

“To reintegrate vulnerable children into school means really looking at all the factors, all the injustices that weigh on that child. It means offering not only services but a commitment to them: that they will not be left behind. A child needs to know they and their future are valuable. We draw all UNRWA services together in the Back to School project for an integrated response tailored to the child and we call for dedicated action to end child labour,” said Amal Abu Shawareb, Associate Protection & Neutrality Officer in Gaza.  

With use of the supplementary resources provided by the “Back to School” project, including catch up classes to aid the reintegration process, Karam’s academic achievement has significantly improved, as has his sense of well-being. Karam’s father highlighted: “His aggressive behaviour is a thing of the past. I struggled with it so much. He was full of disappointment and frustration and that translated into anger and violence.” Now, Karam’s family also receive support sessions that help them understand Karam better and help him.  

In Gaza, UNRWA interventions must now also address the renewed trauma of escalations in hostilities and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Agency will prioritize summer activities for over 100,000 children, bringing them together and reconnecting the children, which will allow UNRWA psycho-social workers to help girls and boys overcome their recent traumatic experience and will provide a sense of normality to them while they catch up on their studies.

On the occasion of the World Day Against Child Labour in the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, we seek to highlight the dedication of the Palestine refugee community to education in spite of the challenging contexts through which they continue to persevere, until a just solution to their plight is reached. UNRWA is proud to provide the resources required to support their access to education, especially in times of extreme trauma and in an emergency context, and UNRWA joins the international community to press for action now to achieve SDG 8 and end child labour. This must include addressing the impact that conflict and sustained restrictions have on the lives of children, their families and their futures.