Palestine: the teacher as pivot point for change and challenging trauma

04.11.2015 - Milena Rampoldi

Palestine: the teacher as pivot point for change and challenging trauma
Issam Sohari (Image by Promosaik)

Teaching with Theatre in Adversity: Issam Sahori

Issam Sahori is a teacher in a village near Bethlehemin in the occupied Westbank, here he tells ProMosaik about his students: “My project is about how to protect students and children from violence and trauma in the village where I teach. I have been a teacher for 15 years now, under the Israeli occupation. The occupation killed four of my students.”

He continues: “More than 50 of my students have experienced Israeli prison. More than 70 of my students were wounded. Tens of my students have psychological traumas because of the Israeli occupation and the daily violence.”

In the following article the project presented by Issam Sahori is for us to understand how the situation is over there, and what are the needs of these children and young people who have not lived one single day of peace in their lives.

The Idea for this Project

The idea for this Project originated after a visit by us teachers from the Teqoa Secondary School near Bethlehem (Palestinian Territories) of a week-long workshop organised by the Youth Theatre Moabit in Berlin. We got a one-month scholarship at the Georg Eckert Institute for Schoolbook Research in Braunschweig to develop a written documentation of an art project against violence in the schools responding to violent conflicts between school students, Israeli settlers from a nearby settlement and the Israeli armed forces.


What became obvious was that Palestinian teachers need all the support that they can get. Our school is overcrowded, 700 pupils have to fit into a space meant for a maximum of 400. Many classes have over 40 children crammed into a small space, with bad or next to no lighting and ventilation. There is no central heating, paraffin and gas heaters being used in winter. There is no real meaningful recreational space. Many facilities are still damaged from years of conflict.

Direct from the school yard one can see the Jewish Settlements on the hills. The road that leads to the school from the village is also used by students from another mixed school and Jewish settlers driving to their settlements. This, as in many other areas, has been the main source of conflict between Palestinians and the Israelis on the West Bank in recent times.

An Israeli tank is posted along the road which daily follows the children on there way to and from school. The students have had many real life experiences with violence, which they told us about – where brothers and sisters were run over by cars of the Jewish settlers or shot ‘in the head’ by Israeli soldiers. The students also told that they have little time to do school work having to do chores and work for their families, the economic situation being so dire. They also have difficulties with the syllabus which required a lot of work – for example the English syllabus which expected too much in too little time.

The lives of teachers isn’t much better. Their pay is around 350 euros a month. These are men and women who spent many years at university learning their subjects. Most of the teachers I met had second or third jobs to make ends meet. Nevertheless you will be astonished at the optimism and openness of the students and at the close relationships that the average teachers have with their students.

Other schools are directly next to Israeli walls. This is leading to real problems for school students and teachers trying to reach their schools, and it leads to real hardship for many families whose agricultural land is being divided on both sides of the wall or simply confiscated without compensation.

Children, youth and education in the Palestinian Territories

The closure of schools and colleges by the Israeli army during the Intifada led to the practical collapse of the whole education system on the West Bank and Gaza. According to the Palestine Authority (PA) Ministry of Education there are today 1,474 state schools, 147 private schools, mostly run by church institutions and 253 UNRWA schools in the Palestinian areas. The teachers in these schools whether in the city or on the land, in camps or in regular urban areas, all face a difficult task: ‘Nation building’ under conditions of occupation and the general poverty of ordinary Palestinian children.
According to the child rights fact sheet published by the Save the Children Alliance in June 2007, children make up 53% of the population of the Palestinian Territories – that’s an estimated 2.1 million under the age of 18. 42% of these children are refugees. 882 children have died through conflicts with the Israeli military or settlers between September 2000 and June 30, 2007. It is estimated that two-thirds of all injuries in this period were to Palestinian minors. Since the Intifada started and until the end of 2006, 7,287 houses were partially or totally destroyed in Gaza, affecting 34,902 children. According to one report (A Psychosocial Assessment of Palestinian Children, written and produced jointly in July 2003 during a period of heavy Israeli military activity by the Secretariat of the National Plan of Action for Palestinian Children (NPA) and Save the Children (SC) and financed and supported by the United States Agency for International Development): “ Nine out of ten parents report symptomatic traumatic behaviour amongst their children, ranging from nightmares and bedwetting, to increased aggressiveness and hyperactivity, as well as a decrease in attention span and concentration capacity.” Today 80% of Palestinian children suffer under high levels of psychic trauma. In one report, the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry estimated the rate of psychological morbidity in the southern region of Bethlehem in the West Bank, to be 42.3% among Palestinian children.

The living conditions don’t make the situation much better. 7 out of 10 households in the Palestinian Territories, or about 2.4 million Palestinians, live in poverty. This accounts for two-thirds of Palestinian children. 40,000 children work, 73% of whom are forced to do so due to their terrible financial conditions. Between 2005 and 2006, the number of people estimated to be food insecure increased by 13%, to 49% of the population -chronic malnutrition affecting 10% of children under five. In Gaza, 50,000 children are malnourished. More than 70% of 9-month-old children in Gaza are anaemic, a condition that can damage their cognitive and physical development.

Attending school in these conditions can be very difficult. According to the ‘child rights fact sheet’, 23% of students and 36% of teachers are unable to get to school on any given day. Closures and curfews mean that for 226,000 children in 580 schools in the West Bank, going to school is impossible, irregular or dangerous. A Birzeit university study in the summer of 2004 found that 45% of school students witnessed their school besieged by Israeli troops, 18% witnessed troops kill a schoolmate and 13% witnessed the killing of a teacher in school. In an article in the ‘International Herald Tribune’ from 18.12.2004 Roger Avenstrup notes the greatest dilemma for teachers is to preach peace, while outside battles are going on against Israeli tanks. The daily violence and the dead on the streets have a deeper impact on the children than any school class.

At the same time school’s role as a social forum, and provider of support, has grown in importance. It is the only real chance to meet with peers in recreational, non-formal and social gatherings. Parents find the environment outside home threatening. With the exception of going to school, they do not encourage their children to leave home. The ‘The Psycho-social Assessment of Palestinian children’ report documented focus group discussions that illustrated the extent to which school plays a pivotal role in children’s life and is valued as such. Children believe that school provides them with the opportunity to work concretely towards ensuring a better future and as a means of peaceful resistance against the occupation. Discussions also revealed the extent to which children use the little recreational time they have to discuss and exchange views with friends, rather than to play.

What needs to be done?

What can be done? The problems of education under these circumstances have been the topic of several reports. These were some of the recommendations: “teachers and school counsellors should be provided with guides to in-classroom psycho-social exercises that allow children to express themselves and improve their ability to concentrate and be attentive in class. Furthermore, the school’s capacity to serve as a ‘multi-functional centre’ should be bolstered, allowing children to study, play and socialize throughout the day…programs that train teachers to deploy proper psycho-social methods in dealing with children in conflict. Programs should be supported which channel children’s resilience, encourage positive aspects of their outlook on the future, and empower them to take control of their lives. A special emphasis should be placed on activities that allow children to express themselves, resolve psychological/social/ behavioural problems and encourage their desire to become positive and supportive members of their community.”
The need for developing educational methods to deal with the specific conditions that teachers work and students study in is therefore obvious. The teachers and the students need new approaches and concrete methods which they can implement in daily school life. For those in Europe and the West who have an interest in education in the Arabic world, and indeed for all who wish to develop the possibilities of peace and stability in the region, this is a chance to give concrete aid. It also opens up the chance to get new insights into education under adverse situations and into Palestinian society. There is an opening for a two way learning process in the area of education.

Aims of our workshop

‘Teaching with Theatre in Adversity’ is a teacher-training workshop for teachers on the west bank.

We want to have the techniques, skills and approaches of theatre to contribute to teacher training on the west bank. The aim of this project is to help teachers cope and develop ways of making their teaching work more effective using theatre – to help to change the experience of school under such adverse conditions by:

– creating ways of getting required distance and developing ways of discussing and dealing with issues of conflict
– exploring the roots of violence and developing methods of non violent self expression
– investigating ways of coping with trauma
– developing methods to trace biographies, explore identities and question narratives
– developing the physical movement of expression of teachers and students
– acquiring tools for utilising fantasy and stimulating artistic recreational activity
– building on and improving the function of school as a social centre,
– developing the shared language of theatre as a contribution to the encouragement and strengthening of a new civil society
– helping to motivate active participants in the nation building process through the participation in civil society

We don’t seek to change the material conditions that Palestinian teachers and school students face as that’s another’s role but we can help by helping teachers who work at a key point in Palestinian society and who are so important for the future of Palestinian youth. Who teaches the teacher! Then we can get teachers from different kinds of schools in different areas who can generalize the experiences that they made in the workshop and share acquired skills with their colleagues. We would like to establish through our work later a network of teachers who know each other, and communicate and develop their skills further and with whom we would like to stay in contact.

We would like to have workshops not just to discuss problems or theatre theories but to transmit concrete techniques and skills needed to use theatre at school.
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Categories: Middle East, Nonviolence
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