Schools in Lebanese refugee camps play an extremely important role in the lives of Palestinians, educating and forming individuals and creating an educated society. The crucial importance of these schools is manifested in many forms.

Most important of which, it seems is their ability to bring together a vast section of the Palestinian community in Lebanon. A study we conducted this year on such schools shows that approximately 90% of Palestinian students attend UNRWA schools at primary, middle, and secondary levels.

Many students are obliged to attend schools more than 15 minutes’ distance from their homes, even though Lebanon is a relatively small country whose inhabitants are generally able to travel easily to reach their workplaces, schools, and places of leisure. The families of students frequently expressed their desire for schools to be closer to their homes particularly in view of the variety of functions schools serve in the lives of students and the entire community.

It is notable that the areas surrounding schools in Lebanon tend to be more densely populated and to have higher house prices than other areas, due to the ability of house owners in the area concerned to raise prices in the knowledge that their properties’ proximity to a school makes them greatly sought-after. In some areas, it is evident that schools have served to populate entire residential areas and have made these areas attractive to individuals and businesses.

In refugee camps, this natural flow of migration towards schools has exacerbated the existing problems of overcrowding. The problem can only get worse, given that these camps have not been extended despite witnessing a 400% increase in the refugee population.

The role of schools in the Palestinian refugee camps is not limited to the educational sphere but extends to the social sphere as well, playing an important role in the social lives of students and providing them with the opportunity to take part in various enriching activities, such as:

• Allowing more than 45,000 students to attend UNRWA schools, which can be found in more than 20 refugee camps and Palestinian communities, and which are closely linked to UNRWA’s educational committee.

• Giving schools access to the media in order to put forward UNRWA’s position and view in relation to student issues and to bring attention to the various activities undertaken by schools throughout the refugee camps.

• Visiting Palestinian civil organizations in order to inform them of educational issues and of the methods used by the schools to deliver their message to members, as well as participating in discussions between the various sections of Palestinian society. These activities are undertaken in a considerable number of schools, depending on the nature and extent of the relationship between the school authorities/board and the local population, and serve to instill in them manners, religious values, and national pride, and to resist the erosion of Palestinian culture.

• The provision of social services to the community in many schools, such as financial aid for poorer students through the waiving of their school fees, and various welfare services. Furthermore, schools play a vitally important role in building a cadre of Palestinian youth leaders and making them aware of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim issues in the Middle East and elsewhere, in addition to advising the various Palestinian student associations. Thus, these schools are distinguished by their function as natural focal points of Palestinian society in the Lebanese refugee camps, making the new generations of Palestinians in Lebanon aware of, uniting them around, and allowing them to participate in, their national struggle.

Due to their importance in playing all the roles outlined above, schools in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon have been the targets of a campaign by the United States’ administration aimed at discrediting Palestinian and Islamic education by attacking the curriculum, accusing schools of being vehicles of extremism and fanaticism, and putting pressure on the UN (and UNRWA) to remove the teaching of Palestinian history and geography from its curriculum.

The US has also attacked education in various Arab countries, describing it as a breeder of terrorism. UNRWA response to this has been to ban the inclusion of “political issues” in the pages of textbooks and to resurrect a long-forgotten UNRWA directive to its employees not to participate in any political activity. This directive is now being strictly implemented, leading to the prevention of employees from expressing their condemnation of the massacres perpetrated against the Palestinian people by way of an hour-long picket in UNRWA offices and schools last month. In addition to this, an hour’s pay was deducted from the employees’ wages, on the orders of the UNRWA regional director in Lebanon, who claimed that the picket suggested that the UNRWA was “biased”.

The directive on the ban on “political activity” was used by directors of UNRWA schools and departments to justify a ban on the Palestinian national anthem, which was previously played in schools at the start of each day.

It is evident that all educational systems are in need of constant improvement and reform, but this must involve careful planning and implementation in order to yield beneficial results for Palestinian education and for its students. But schools for the children of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon suffer from a long list of problems, which do not seem to have been addressed by UNRWA’s recent ‘reformative’ measures. Overcrowding and the sorry state of schools built several decades ago are only two areas where improvements are urgently needed.

Very little modernization, if any, has been undertaken on these schools, leading to a situation where, in some schools, walls have to be propped up by wooden poles in order to prevent them caving in on pupils. Some schools are so structurally unsound that they tremble under the feet of pupils entering and leaving them; yet, it has never occurred to those in charge to move pupils into new buildings for their own safety. One must remember that the school is made up of buildings, students, teachers, director, and texts.

If the building is what brings together the elements of the educational process, and the pupil is the product of this process, then it is clear that the pupil’s relationship with his teacher has a great impact on his interaction with, and response to, the knowledge he is taught. Teachers are generally pleased with pupils who show a real interest in their subject and wish to know more about it. The best way to please a teacher is, naturally, to make an effort in his lessons.

There are thirteen ways with which to win the respect or admiration of a teacher, which we have taken from a book titled “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, New York Press, 1936, which instructs the pupil to:

• Make sure not to criticize, or complain about, a teacher’s method of teaching.

• Let the teacher know that you like the subject he teaches.

• Let the teacher know that you think he is important.

• Avoid arguing with the teacher.

• Acknowledge when you are wrong, and do so quickly and honestly.

• Ask questions, and do not demand answers.

• Genuinely try to understand the teacher’s point of view.

• Let the teacher know that you intend to work very hard for his subject.

• Take the relevant textbook with you when you visit the teacher.

Teachers play the extremely important role of conveying knowledge to pupils, and the success of the entire education system depends upon this. The successful teacher is one who follows closely his pupils’ progress and work, and, if resources and equipment are scarce, makes the best possible use of them, as well as seeking to implement the recommendations and findings of research on education, psychology, and modern teaching methods.

The successful teacher should be flexible in his methods and willing to make changes and improvements to adapt them to his pupils’ needs, abilities, and attitudes, and the needs of the society in which they live. He should not limit his attentions to his pupils’ intellectual development alone, but should aim to aid their development in every sphere and by every means possible, such as encouraging pupils to engage in the subject fully by visiting places of interest to their studies, asking questions during the lesson, and by taking notes on the pupils and encouraging debate and genuine engagement. It is said that the mother is a school, to which we reply, “the mother is a school sustained by a smile, even in the darkest of moments, possessing a strength that inspires confidence, hope, and determination, opening its arms to embrace the flowers, and providing fertile land for their growth.

The school is a vast place, opening horizons beyond our imagination. It bears the heavy responsibility of carrying the torch for future generations, lighting up the future through kind words, wise advice, firmness, and infinite generosity. It is universally accepted that the director of a school is the foundation stone of the education system. He is responsible for the day-to-day running of the school, and the scope of his work is vast. He deals with pupils of different ages, characters, abilities, talents, and behaviour, as well as teachers of various outlooks, and abilities in different subjects and fields of interest, who come to work loaded with their own personal preoccupations.

He is inundated with rules, recommendations, advice, and suggested methods from higher authorities, as well as from inspectors and advisors. He is observed by many and assessed by many more. It is the director’s responsibility to meet the demands of those around him as far as he is able, and to satisfy the needs of his pupils and aid their development.

He is required to meet the needs of his teaching staff, those of his pupils’ parents and community, and to fulfil the requirements of higher authorities. His job is not a simple matter of giving orders, but involves daily interaction with fellow humans with their idiosyncrasies and differences, requiring him to be flexible and astute. He must consult his teaching staff and involve them in the decision process, while directing them and encouraging them to overcome any difficulties.

Thus, his job requires co-operation with teachers to ensure pupils receive the best education possible in the circumstances, as well as collaboration with parents through the school’s parents’ committee in order to identify and solve any problems, be they educational or social.

This co-operation between the school and the community it serves can be a great source of strength for the director and can greatly facilitate his own job and that of teachers, as demonstrated by the director of a secondary school in the Algerian town of Al-Barwaaqiya, who solved the problem of lack of seating for the pupils by insisting that 40 pupils bring chairs from home. The parents of these pupils co-operated with the school, and obtained the necessary number of chairs by borrowing them from other families and even from local cafes.

Thus, by involving the local community and calling on their assistance, the director solved this potentially disruptive problem. In conclusion, it is necessary to point out that the school’s fulfillment of the above-mentioned roles and functions is not unprecedented in the history of the Palestinian cause.

It is, rather, a natural return to the original role of the school in the educational life of the community. This return has been made necessary by the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and their experience as a migrant community searching for, and affirming, its identity, institutions, and way of life in an Arab environment characterized by a high degree of unity and freedom, helping schools in Lebanon to regain their historic role in a spontaneous way. Books have, of course, played a fundamental role in this process, due to the good judgment shown by those in charge of these schools.

Source: Ali Huweidi - Beirut