Israa’s Perfect Score: Learning for a brighter future

13 September 2020
Israa al-Rifai, 15, is an UNRWA student at the UNRWA Shafa Amr School in Barzeh, Damascus. © 2020 Photo courtesy of Israa al-Rifai

“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. I realized that it was real when I started to receive phone calls from my school principal and teachers congratulating me,” said Israa al-Rifai, 15, a student at the UNRWA Shafa Amr School in Barzeh, Damascus.

Israa 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. Together, they showed the world that resilience and hard work can lead to success, even under the most difficult circumstances.

Israa shares her fears and worries about when preventative measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic became necessary, “The lock-down period created additional uncertainty for all of us. We thought we were used to difficult situations, but we had never experienced anything like this before. I had very mixed feelings and was anxious and worried that the exams might be postponed or even cancelled. But I quickly realized that if I continued to study hard, things would be fine. My teachers reassured me and have always been there for me when I needed them. They sent us homework and lessons via WhatsApp and answered all of our questions. I am very grateful for this and would like to thank them all.” All schools in Syria suspended in-person classes in March and utilized alternative methods to ensure that educational services were not interrupted.

“The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for us,” Baraa Duweh, a mathematics teacher in Israa’s school said.

“Almost overnight, we had to teach remotely. After many years of conflict, we luckily already had a system in place, but this time was different. We used the existing self-learning material of the curriculum, but also WhatsApp groups and social media platforms to raise awareness around COVID-19 and to provide psychosocial support for our students and their families. This was particularly well received, and it made us happy. We wanted to do everything to help our students and to make sure they didn’t miss their school year and stayed healthy. When my students are successful and happy, I’m happy too,” said Baraa.

To make sure students were reacclimated to the classroom atmosphere and to reconnect with them, UNRWA organized support classes for 3,649 ninth graders in Syria two weeks before their exams. They came to schools in shifts to guarantee physical distancing and prior to entering the premises UNRWA staff measured their temperatures and distributed facemasks.

“During these classes, we reviewed every subject and answered questions, including some about COVID-19. This reassured the students and helped them to feel more confident. Many were scared, but we managed to lower their fears and address their concerns. It was a very good experience for all of us. We felt that they were ready and well prepared before the exams started,” Baraa highlighted.

UNRWA is proud to serve more than 50,000 Palestine refugee students in Syria. Some 90 per cent of UNRWA school students passed the national ninth grade exam, compared to the national average of 68 per cent.  “Education is a lifeline for us. I have lost everything in my life, had to flee several times, but nobody can take what I’ve studied and learned away from me. And it will help me fulfill my dreams. I would like to become a doctor and will study even harder to make this come true. I owe it to myself, but also to my dear family, my teachers and psychosocial counselors. They have always been there for me. Now, I’m looking forward to a new chapter in my life. I will move on, regardless of any obstacles, difficulties and challenges,” said Israa, full of hope and courage.

In 2020, national exam support classes for ninth grade UNRWA students in Syria were made possible thanks to support from Belgium under the 'Education in Emergencies (EiE) for Palestine Refugee Children' project.