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Gaza dreams: top marks and bananas

© UNICEF-oPt/2007/Iyad El_baba

By Toni O’Loughlin

GAZA, 29 November 2007 - Najwah Al Smairi, one of the brightest in her class, goes to school just metres from Gaza’s heavily guarded perimeter but failure, not violence, is the fear she talks about most.

Najwah has slipped from fourth to fifth in her class and the studious 11 year old is concerned. “When I spoke to my sister she told me not to worry, that it was normal and I was still clever but I am still worried,” Najwah says.

She worries she will be soon overtaken by failure.

Low grades have become endemic in Gaza, jeopardising the Palestinian reputation for being the best educated in the Middle East. Some 80 per cent of students fail maths and 40 per cent fail Arabic, their mother tongue, in the strife torn territory, according to the World Bank.

Palestinians have long traded on education as an investment in the future, working their way into the upper echelons of governments and business throughout the region.But with Gaza’s economy grinding to a halt the outlook is troubling.
Israel’s five month blockade of the tiny coastal territory has emptied school storerooms and stationary cupboards of text books, paper and photocopier spare parts.

At Najwah’s school the teachers cannot print tests because the price of paper, which is imported and is in short supply, has surged from 60 shekel (US$15) to 100 shekel (US$25) a rheem. “We will have to write the exam on the blackboard and that takes time, the lesson is just 40 minutes,” says Ahmad Ismari, an English teacher at the school.

A severe shortage of building materials also means Najwah and her peers must share the boys’ toilets because a second amenity block cannot be built.

Yet while teachers and children make do with their dwindling resources the militants, who Israel is trying to thwart with the blockade, continue firing rockets at the nearby Israeli town of Sderot.

Now Israel is threatening to restrict the supply of electricity in retaliation for the ongoing attacks. Gaza already has power shortages and the prospect of further blackouts will affect children more than most. Children, up to age 17, are 56 per cent of the population in Gaza.

To cope with the lack of classrooms many schools operate two shorter shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In Gaza, this means 73 per cent of students lose almost two hours of schooling a day.

Teaching standards seem to have already slipped along with student performances according to the World Bank’s 2006 analysis of Palestinian education.

Now community support for education is on the wane. Enrolment rates in secondary school have leapt 55 per cent since 1999-2000 because employment opportunities for students have disappeared. Yet enrolment in primary grades dropped eight per cent in the same period.Even when children attend school their minds are distracted by hunger. Drowsiness often overwhelms Najwah in class because tea is all that she has for breakfast most days.“Sometimes I feel I can’t read and I can’t follow the teacher,” she says.
Since the beginning of the blockade in July, 70,000 people have lost their jobs, adding to Gaza’s soaring unemployment rate, at well over 30 per cent. The number of families dependent on food aid is around 80 per cent and aid agencies worry that hunger is growing.

Ten out of every 100 children under five are already stunted and this figure is expected to grow as Gaza’s economy continues disintegrating. Household budgets are under pressure as the soaring cost of imported items like flour and bread eat into shrinking incomes.

© UNICEF-oPt/2007/Iyad El-baba

Hamzer Al Din Ahmed, a 10 year-old boy and the youngest of 13 children whose father is unemployed with two wives, says his hunger taunts him in his sleep.“I once dreamed that the house was full of fruit and vegetables and then I woke up and didn’t find anything,” Hamzer says.
Eating as many apples and bananas as he wants is one of his three top wishes and his parents are too poor to buy fruit. “I have forbidden myself from going to the market,” Hamzer says, explaining that walking past the fruit stands reminds him of his hunger.

Food is in short supply but violence is abundant. Some 45 per cent of children in Gaza and the West Bank have seen Israeli soldiers besiege their school, 25 per cent have seen their school exposed to firing or shelling, 18 per cent have seen troops kill a school mate and 45 per cent say they see violence in school daily according to a Beirzet University study.

“Fear is in every child, they really feel it when the Israeli army comes. They can’t concentrate, they are really absent minded,” says Ahmad Ismari, an English teacher at Najwah’s school. “Sometimes there are internal Palestinian clashes and when we hear the shots we tell the children to hide under the window,” he says.

Najwah, who often goes to school feeling sad for the mothers she has watched on television weeping for their dead children, says that Israeli soldiers recently raided her house to detain two relatives. “For two days I didn’t feel like talking,” she says.

School results released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which also runs schools in Lebanon and Syria, highlight the damaging effect of decades of violence and poverty on education in Gaza.

In Syria and Lebanon where life is more stable, Palestinian children outperformed their national contemporaries in the last school year. In Lebanon 93 per cent of Palestinian students passed their exams in UNRWA schools compared to 72 per cent of Lebanese students in the national system. In Syria, 89 per cent of Palestinian students passed in compared to 67 per cent of Syrians.

Yet in UNRWA’s Gaza schools, 66 per cent to 90 per cent of children, in grades four to nine, failed maths and 61 per cent in grade eight failed Arabic while 30 to 40 per cent failed literacy.

“In other countries they look after their schools and the children, there’s someone looking after the copy books and marking the homework but not here,” Najwah says.




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