Leaving Gaza for the first time in their lives
GAZA, State of Palestine, 27, July 2017 - Dreams can come true. This is what happened to 16 Palestinian students who left the Gaza Strip and traveled to the West Bank for the first time in their lives as part of a trip organized by UNICEF.
The students were invited to attend the opening event of a UNICEF exhibition of school murals at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Ramallah, in the West Bank. The 16 girls and boys were among the 1,450 Palestinian teenagers who painted more than 400 colorful murals on the walls of 145 public schools across the Gaza Strip.
After the 2014 conflict, UNICEF, together with UNDP, embarked on an innovative project of reconstruction and rehabilitation of schools in the Gaza Strip to provide children and adolescents with safer, inclusive child-friendly school. A key activity was the enhancement and beautification of schools and their surroundings through children's art.
Most schools in the Gaza Strip operate on a double shift basis - instruction is limited to four hours or less per day - and nearly 229,000 children are in need of structured psychosocial services and child protection interventions. Given the harsh environment that they live in, improving student's learning environment was an opportunity to empower children, enabling them to be active participants in the design and implementation of the project.
The activity led to a partnership with the General Union of Cultural Centers, supported by Al Fakhoora, a program of the 'Education Above All' foundation funded by the Qatar Fund for Development.
The exhibition of photos showing some of the murals opened in presence of 2017 Arab Idol winner Yacoub Shaheen, Palestinian Minister of Education and Higher Education H.E. Sabri Saidam, UNICEF State of Palestine Special Representative June Kunugi and the 16 students. It was a well-deserved tribute to the creativity of Palestinian children and adolescents who, despite hard circumstances, managed to find beauty and colors in their world. Some of the murals were uplifting, while others were a call for action on issues such as early marriage, child labor or the need to support children with disabilities.
UNICEF welcomed the students out of Gaza to attend the opening event, which was an extremely challenging process given the need to obtain a permission to leave the Gaza Strip for each student, requiring a plethora of approvals from Palestinian and Israeli authorities. In addition, the students were given the opportunity to visit historical landmarks in Ramallah and in the Old City of Jerusalem. UNICEF also organized a meeting with Palestinian adolescents whose age living in East Jerusalem, during which they shared the commonalities and differences in their lives.
"It was the first time in my life that I left Gaza. I thought everything was narrow and tiny, like in Gaza, but once we had left, there were vast spaces and wide lands. The first thing I noticed is that there is a world out of Gaza, and how big that world can be, "says 16-year-old Suleiman. A talented student, he is known to draw the portrait of famous people in front of a live audience, as he did during the opening event for the exhibition.
"I had been invited to participate in some exhibitions outside Gaza in the past but I could not go due to movement restrictions," Suleiman adds. "Managing to do it at last was a great achievement. I also loved visiting museums in Ramallah. I had checked what they looked like on the Internet but once I was there for real, everything looked far more impressive. "
"I had never seen a church before"
For Amal, who has just turned 18, the most surprising part of the trip was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. Even though there are a couple of churches in the Gaza Strip, she had never seen one before.
"Churches belong to another world," she says, adding that she enjoyed learning about the history of the Church very much.
Amal still feels overwhelmed when she mentions her visit to the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, Sunni Islam's third holiest site.
"There are no words that can describe what I felt when I entered the Mosque. Tears started spilling down on my face as I was praying, "she tells. "I was checking every corner in it, I did not want to leave. I wish I could go back to this holy place every day. "
Amal fondly remembers the speech she made at the opening event on behalf of the 16 students, and says she was touched by the praises she received about it. She also says that she made new friends among some of the adolescents living in East Jerusalem, and that she is staying in touch with them online.
One of the Palestinian girls she met in East Jerusalem, 17-year-old Celina, says she was surprised to learn that adolescents living in Gaza have very limited access to things as simple as electricity or drinking water.
"I was also shocked to learn that most students in Gaza do not have access to after-school activities, because their schools function on a double shift basis. And even when there are clubs available for adolescents, they told me that it was for boys only, leaving girls out, "Celina says
Back to the harsh reality of the Gaza Strip
Amal and the other students are now back in the Gaza Strip and its harsh reality. Families have electricity only two hours a day and face increasing difficulties to access safe drinking water. More than 70 percent of families depend on aid to make ends meet, at a time when the poverty rate reaches 40 percent and youth unemployment a staggering 61 percent.
Despite the daily challenges of life in the Gaza Strip, Amal has plans for the future.
"When I think of the trip, I feel like it was a dream and wish I had not woken up. I want to go to university and study medicine. I hope I can travel again, this time to Japan, because I would love to go there and I know they are one of the most advanced countries for science. "
Upon her return to the Gaza Strip, Amal learnt that she had scored 98 points out of 100 at her Tawjihi (final high school) exam.
Last year, UNICEF organized exchanges between Palestinian students from both sides through video conference. This year, we helped students travel and bridge the political, geographic and sometimes cultural gap that exists between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, even if only for a few days. More is needed to help adolescents from all over the State of Palestine meet and build a joint future which will enable them to thrive and to fulfill their immense potential.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.