We are often at schools to provide a protective presence for Palestinian children and teachers. This is an important way to serve, as many Palestinian children and teachers are not able to access or provide education (a fundamental right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child). Under this convention, which Israel has signed, every child has the right to survival, protection and education, regardless of race, religion or abilities.
In the car by 7, one-day last week, we took the half-hour journey to the schools we are providing a protective presence for. They are far from the only schools in our area under threat, just the ones most recently or regularly targeted by the Israeli Military. We are checking in with others as we go.
Students are often prevented from attending by settler interference and/or by military presence. Sometimes children are apprehended by soldiers on the way to school and schools are sometimes invaded by the military with teargas, sound bombs and other weapons. This happened in a village near Ramallah, (a city under Palestinian control) on January 19 of this year. We hear it has happened frequently in schools around Bethlehem. We try to safeguard children by our presence and document occurrences when they happen.
The Military is again present at both schools. We leave one (where the jeep is pretty far off) to focus on the Boy’s School where ‘clashes’(attacks on students by the military with tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets facing off against rocks and burning tires) have occurred in the past. The evidence (burnt out tires and empty tear gas canisters) is all around. Walking with the students to the school under the scrutiny of the soldiers in the jeep, I wondered what the soldiers were thinking. Bored perhaps? Hopefully not. Boredom can sometimes be inciteful. They are bolstered by a van parked further up the hill while a Military Helicopter circles overhead. Not taking any chances with these boys?
Beckoned into the headmaster’s office we are made welcome with coffee and conversation. The staff member speaking with us is a caring, compassionate, passionate man with three young children of his own. He is a semester and a thesis away from completing his master’s degree with a focus on trauma-informed counselling. He wishes strongly for a curriculum beyond the basics (the school’s focus is almost exclusively academic) as he knows his students could have a better chance of working through grief, family systems related issues, post-traumatic stress and generational lateral violence through fine arts and music. Even sports, he says, only happens once a week. He hopes for a fine arts teacher if the ministry will only fund the position.
His concerns are echoed in a study quoted by the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. http://www.pmrs.ps/details.php?id=q1duk2a2074ybe2zvb0pe . Over half of Palestinian children suffer from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many suffer night traumas. This staff member struggles to help them find a way to voice their pain.
Pulling out some of the student’s artwork, and art by a student’s mother, he shows us what they’ve created in dealing with everyday traumas faced by children living under occupation. Struggling for an identity beyond that of victim and oppressed. A way to speak truth to power without risking life or liberty or the ability to live here (people can be and are ‘exiled’ to Gaza if the Israeli Military decides they want them there) He tells us of gifted students, graduating with diplomas and degrees, working in garages, offices and as labourers because they have no opportunities. One, a gifted artist, occupies his heart. If only he could have taken lessons…
He is passionate, supportive, creative, willing, energetic and 100% behind his students who have been, he tells us, used by everyone in this conflict. He is not happy with the current political scenarios and wishes, it is clear, for a chance to bring about lasting change for his students and their families. I hope he at least gets the art teacher, and maybe a band program.
I think of all the children we see each day, small and tall, brave and shy, laughing and thoughtful, welcoming and aloof. I wonder how it is we allow this to go on. Our government ignores, our media won’t even deplore and the commanders of the army blame adults for forcing them to make war on children.
I don’t think this is what Jesus meant when he said: “Suffer the little children…”