Through conflict and poverty, students in the Occupied Palestinian Territory struggle to learn

By Monica Awad

WEST BANK, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 1 October 2010 - Ask principal Hanan Awwad what it is like to head the Khan al-Ahmar elementary school and she will reply that she feels "fear and exhaustion" - but also great pride.

The Ms. Awwad is afraid that her five-room school building could be demolished at any moment. Khan al-Ahmar - an ecologically-friendly school constructed two years ago by the non-governmental Italian Cooperation - was built in an area of the Occupied Palestinian Territory where building permits are rarely granted to Palestinians. Now it has been ordered demolished unless international pressure and court appeals can prevent its destruction.

Some 75 children, all of them from nearby Bedouin encampments, carry out daily lessons here.

Children bear the brunt

Bedouin communities, an Arab ethnic minority group, are deeply tied to agriculture and animal husbandry. Still, says the local mukhtar, or head of village, education has come to be viewed as crucial to the community's survival.

Ms. Awwad knows that her school is a success because its enrollment has more than doubled in the years she has headed it. "We are planting the enjoyment of learning," she said with a smile.

Agreements between Palestinians and Israelis divided the West Bank into distinct areas. In the zone known as 'Area C,' which comprises a full 60 per cent of the West Bank, Palestinian residents often go without basic services, including education.

Some 24 out of 135 government schools in Area C are considered to be sub-standard, made up of tent caravans, cement block buildings or tin shacks.

Moreover, the students learning there face challenges that other students do not. "Without electricity, how can a student work past certain hours?" asked Ms. Awwad. "If research is required, how can a student get access to a computer?"

Long journey to school

Ahmed, 12, said he lives "under the road" in a makeshift encampment. To get to the Khan al-Ahmar school he must cross a busy highway on foot. Still, attending this school is easier and cheaper than making one's way to Jericho, one half-hour away by shared taxi. Before the Khan al-Ahmar school existed, students were forced to make that long trip alone.

In Area C, the vast majority of communities report that distance to school and transportation costs are the main obstacles to education. Some students must walk as far as 25 km to reach their schools.

Children from Khan al-Ahmar, together with over one million children across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, recently returned to school. Many of the buildings where they attend classes are run-down or unfit, and classrooms are overcrowded. Countless students must walk long, unsafe journeys to reach their schools, or - like students at Khan al-Ahmar - face the risk of their schools being demolished.

"It is a disaster if they demolish this school," said the local mukhtar, 65-year-old Ibrahim Abu Dahouk, adding that schools often play a key role in offering humanitarian assistance. He called on the international community to act in support of his community and its future by supporting young peoples' education.

"Children must have safe and unrestricted access to education, and schools themselves must provide a decent and appropriate environment for learning," said UNICEF Special Representative in Jerusalem Jean Gough. "Every child has the right to learn and grow in an environment where their health and safety are paramount."