It is early on Sunday morning and the sound of school bells can be heard. Playgrounds are full. Students are in lines singing the Palestinian national anthem. Teachers are supervising activities. Speeches are being delivered. This, however, is not a typical school assembly, as falls on day 48 of a war that has seen unprecedented loss of life and devastation across the Gaza Strip.
Similar ceremonies were coordinated on 24 August in every UNRWA school functioning as shelter, to mark what should have been the first day of school for children in Gaza. As the violence continues, UNRWA hopes the symbolic ceremonies will offer the people of Gaza hope.
The Agency has introduced a three phase emergency education plan, coordinated with the Ministry of Education and in close collaboration with other partners. The plan commences this week and includes psychosocial interventions, the use of new technology, UNRWA satellite TV education programmes and self-learning material for all children.
Bisan will commence eighth grade this year. She has been taking refuge with her family in Beach Elementary Co-ed School C for the past 37 days and participated in the ceremony held there. “We will smile despite the destruction, displacement and homelessness we are passing through,” she says. “The world’s students are now preparing their school bags following a happy summer vacation, celebrating the new school year and meeting their friends, but we Gaza children are not.”
In line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNRWA is committed to doing everything possible to help every child in Gaza access education. Alternative teaching and curriculum help children learn how to maintain their health and personal safety, including how to avoid unexploded ordnances. These interventions are critical to help families feel safer when it comes time to rebuild their lives.
The education sector in Gaza was at a crisis point even before the current emergency. According to UN information, Gaza was suffering from a shortage of almost 200 schools, with many running double shifts. The pressure on the Gaza education system has only intensified with the loss of additional schools during the conflict, and the continued presence of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons seeking refuge in school buildings.
Deputy Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza Scott Anderson says the ongoing conflict has seen 79 UNRWA schools damaged, and 85 functioning as shelters that are hosting over 283,000 people, including about 75,000 school-aged children
“These factors combined mean that delivering standard curriculum in traditional formats is not possible for refugee or non-refugee children in Gaza at this time,” Mr. Anderson says. “However, we must not let that stop us from providing learning opportunities for the next generation.
“We know that there are interventions that work for children in times of conflict and have seen great success with students in other field areas, including Syria.”
Whilst the emergency education activities will help students continue their education, longer term interventions in Gaza are also essential. The seven-year Israel blockade of Gaza has prevented much needed new schools from being built. If the blockade is not lifted at the conclusion of the war, there is a risk that it will impair reconstruction efforts. UNRWA continues to appeal to the international community to make education in Gaza an urgent priority so students can continue their studies and lives beyond the current conflict.
The reality of the situation for children in Gaza compared to children in other countries does not go unnoticed by Bisan and her classmates.
“I hope that we can lead a normal life similar to other children in the world and can go to our schools in safety and security,” Bisan says. “We did not do anything wrong, and on this day we should have been sitting at school desks.”