From student to principal: giving refugees hope

28 June 2019
UNRWA teacher Amal Abu Harb photographed with her students. © 2019 Yaser Elian

Education is a basic human right for children around the world, from France/Switzerland to India, Canada to South Africa. And it’s one that has the power to change children’s lives, equipping them with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed.

But this is not always the case for refugees. Access to education is not a given, especially when you are a young girl in a refugee camp, as I was.

I entered Nur Shams Basic Girls School, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), in a small refugee camp in the north of the West Bank. There, as a shy young girl sitting in the first row of the class, I received the information and life skills that would help shape who I would become. And I know how lucky I was to have that opportunity. I’ll never forget the day when one of my cousins was forced out of school at age 13 and got married shortly afterwards as a young girl because her parents did not believe she should stay in class.  I still can hear her crying and I can still feel my own helplessness in the face of this crime against childhood.

This was the moment I decided to hold on tight to any chance I would get to reshape my and other refugees’ futures so that any child who wanted to go to school could do so. Now, 20 years later, I’m back in the same classroom where I used to sit as a child, but I am now a teacher and school principal. I realised that the best way to help others was to become a teacher and work with UNRWA to give back to the community. So, I worked my way up, until I graduated from An Najah University in Nablus, which is within the occupied Palestinian territory, as an English language teacher. I am now one of more than 17,000 Palestine refugees who are teaching refugee children across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, helping them reach their potential for a brighter future.

I know that nothing in my life could have been possible without the invaluable education I received. I’m honored to help my fellow refugees by ensuring that they have the same chance to live and study that I had. In UNRWA schools, we empower vulnerable Palestine refugees, particularly girls, through gender-balanced education. We are very proud that half of UNRWA students are girls. In the past, girls could easily end up without hope of a future: married at an early age, quickly taking care of a household and children, staying home or working in the field. But this doesn’t happen anymore. Eighty per cent of Nur Shams girls who graduate from UNRWA schools go on to attend college and fulfill their dreams of becoming doctors, engineers, teachers or nurses.

We nurture opportunities for success in all our students, including those with social needs. Rua, one of my students, for example, was born with health problems that prevent her from walking or using her hands. Through our approach of Inclusive Education, when she came to our school, we made sure that her health condition was never an obstacle to her academic fulfillment. Classes took place on the ground floor, and teachers brought the computers from the second floor to her to explain the lessons. Rua undertook verbal exams after the school counselor worked with her with meetings and activities to raise her self–confidence. And it all paid off: Rua is now at university studying psychology.

I’m proud that Nur Shams – and all UNRWA schools – show good academic achievement and low drop-out rates. We teach human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance. Today, Palestine refugees’ literacy and educational levels are among the highest in the Middle East. A lot of it is the result of a culture of learning that recognizes the challenging and adverse environment the children live in but focuses on student achievement and well-being. The strong ties between the school and the families reinforces a spirit of partnership within the community. This high-quality basic education and the supportive environment help young Palestine refugees develop the skills to thrive as adults and become active members of their community.

But despite our dedication and commitment to providing education to Palestine refugees, the challenges continue to grow. Right now the financial challenge looms over our heads as one school year ends and we prepare for a new one. After the U.S. decision to stop supporting UNRWA last year, we worked hard to ensure an uninterrupted education for our students, admitting more children per class, but we now urgently need to know that we have enough funds to be able to open our doors again on 25 August and welcome back children for the next school year.

On World Refugee Day, I encourage past, present and future donors to UNRWA to help us uphold the basic right to education for our children and ensure they go back to their classes to learn.

Children, whether or not they are refugees, deserve access to quality education. It is a right, not a privilege, and should not become a victim of cash shortfall nor the politicization of aid. There is a lot that countries around the world can and should do to ensure refugee children have education – and hope. They are no different than other children who take a break from school in the summer but need to know that, come September, they will be back at their desks. More than words, we need actions.