Parallels
4:35 pm
Thu August 14, 2014

Gaza Students Wonder When Their Schools Will Reopen

Originally published on Fri August 15, 2014 8:02 pm

There's clamor and hustle outside the Western Gaza City Educational Directorate. A month late, this year's graduating high school students are getting their high school diplomas.

Usually, there's a little ceremony. But today, they're just clustering around a window while the certificates are handed out. So many education workers are injured or have lost homes that only about a third of them showed up for work.

Nonetheless, the students' joy feels loud and luminous in a city numbed by war.

"Words cannot describe how happy I feel," says Said Siyam. He got 80 percent overall, a good grade that will allow him to go to a university to study Arabic literature. But he'll have to wait until the damaged university re-opens.

He planned to have a little party with his friends to celebrate. But he's canceled it because he can't stop thinking about those who died recently. Children accounted for more than 450 of the roughly 2,000 Gazans who died in the fighting with Israel. More than 60 Israelis were killed, all but a few of them soldiers.

Siyam says that studying was difficult in Gaza even before the latest round of violence. Gaza is short on electricity and when the lights were out, students lost hours every day when they could be studying. And Israeli restrictions on goods allowed into Gaza meant that textbooks might not arrive until a month into the school year.

It has just become even harder to get an education here. More than 200 schools have been damaged, perhaps a couple dozen of them completely destroyed. Israel says it does not target civilians and asserts that the militants used schools as bases. And with tens of thousands left homeless, there are still a lot of people sheltering in schools.

Ali Tolba, a principal, said his school remains full of displaced Gazans.

"I've seen it and you cannot tell it's a school," he said. "It looks like a market; people from different areas of the Gaza strip, different backgrounds. They are frustrated, they're angry, they're sad, they're not happy with anything. So actually I believe it's going to take a long time to rehabilitate the people and the building."

He adds that part of the problem is that people still don't know whether the war is over and they can start rebuilding. The Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to extend a cease-fire for five more days. But people still wonder whether the fighting will resume. Either way, it's clear school won't start as planned on Aug. 24.

Tolba's nephew, Mohammed, is an 11-year-old student at the school. He says he usually likes the holidays, but not this year. His uncle says traumatized children need the routine of class, adding that two kids from his school were killed in the fighting.

"The best thing now is for a kid to be with other kids who've seen the same scenes," he said.

UNICEF spokeswoman Catherine Weibel, said that "going back to school is something that will help them recover. Have again a sense of normalcy in their lives."

UNICEF and other groups are planning games and activities to help the children recover, before they start studying again. But it'll be tough to find space, Even before this conflict, many of the nearly half-million kids in Gaza were going to school in shifts because of a lack of space.

Down where the high school diplomas are being handed out, Rima Abu Aida, says she wants to be a teacher. She says some kids in Gaza can't see the point of overcoming the obstacles to study and get an education.

"I will encourage them," she says. "They can never be frustrated, they need to keep trying."

Alice Fordham covers the Middle East from her base in Beirut. Follow her @AliceFordham.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Gaza, a cease-fire has been extended while Israelis and Palestinians negotiate. And we're going to hear now about efforts to return life to normal for children. The United Nations says more than 450 children were killed in Gaza during the month-long war. Israel blames militants for operating in civilian areas. For parents and educators, the focus is on getting kids back into a routine. But NPR's Alice Fordham reports school won't be opening on time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH BABBLE)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: There's clamor and hustle here outside a school-system office in Gaza City. They were delayed by the month of fighting, but now this year's high school students are getting their diplomas. Their joy feels loud and luminous in a city numbed by war.

SAID SIYAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Words cannot describe how happy I feel, says Said Siyam. He got 80 percent - a good grade that will allow him to go to college to study Arabic literature.

SIYAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He'd planned to have a little party with his friends to celebrate - have some sweets. But he's canceled - can't stop thinking about those who died in the fighting. And he tells me it's not been easy to get these grades.

SIYAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Gaza is short on electricity, Siyam says. When there's no lights, you lose hours every day when you could be studying. Because of restrictions on goods allowed into Gaza, they'd be a month into the school year before they got their books. More than 200 schools have been damaged, perhaps a couple dozen of them completely destroyed. Israel says it does not target civilians but that militants used schools as bases.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISE)

FORDHAM: With tens of thousands left homeless, there are a lot of people sheltering in schools. Nearby I go to meet Ali Tolba, a school principal who's just been to visit his school now teeming with displaced people.

ALI TOLBA: (Through translator). I've seen it and you cannot tell that it's a school. It looks like a market - people from different areas of the Gaza Strip, different backgrounds. They're frustrated. They're angry. They're sad. They're not happy with anything. So actually, I believe it's going to take a long time to rehabilitate the people and the building.

FORDHAM: He adds that part of the problem is that people still don't know whether the war's over and they can start rebuilding. There's a cease-fire now. But will fighting start again? Either way, it's clear school won't start on August 24th as planned. His 11-year-old nephew, Mohammad, is also one of his students.

MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Usually, I'd like the holiday, he says. But this time, it's a war. At his school, at least two children were killed. The traumatized kids need the routine of class, says his uncle the principal.

TOLBA: (Through translator). Of course it's very important, because the best thing now is that the kid is with other kids who've seen the same scenes.

FORDHAM: UNICEF spokeswoman Catherine Weibel agrees.

CATHERINE WEIBEL: Going back to school is something that will help them recover. It will help them have again a sense of normalcy in their lives.

FORDHAM: UNICEF and other groups are planning activities to help the children recover before they start studying again. But it'll be tough to find space. Even before this conflict, Weibel says most of Gaza's nearly half-million school-aged children were studying in shifts because of a classroom shortage.

(SOUNBITE OF CHILDREN ON SCHOOLYARD)

FORDHAM: Down where the high school diplomas are being handed out, I meet Rima Abu Aida, who wants to be a teacher. She says some kids in Gaza can't see the point of overcoming the obstacles to study and to get an education.

RIMA ABU AIDA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: I will encourage them, she says. They can never be frustrated. They need to keep trying. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.