In spring, I attended a conference on educational challenges in the Palestinian refugee population. The conference was organized by the National Institution of Social Care and Vocational Training – Beit Atfal Assumoud through the financial support of NORWAC. One of the speakers, Dr Jihane Rohayem, presented a remarkable study that focused on the children’s perception of their school setting. The psychiatrist, who works with Palestinian children, studied their opinion on the UNRWA schools in the Ain Al Hilweh camp in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon. (UNRWA is the UN agency established for the Palestinians that also provides for their education in the camps.)
Only very few educational studies worldwide take the children’s perception into account and even fewer of them tackle children living in unusual environments such as a refugee camp. In Dr Rohayem’s study, students aged 8 to 18 from 9 different schools in Ain Al Hilweh were asked to fill in a questionnaire covering points such as their interest in school, safety, their relationship with teachers and peers, and learning issues. The goal of the survey was to evaluate the state of the schools in order to improve the teaching environment later on.
The evaluation showed that the great majority thought learning would help them in the future and school was seen as a positive, supporting environment, despite shortfalls of teaching material and safety. “It is quite touching how the children in the survey want to be perfect children and work to get scholarships”, Dr Rohayem told me later in private. Scholarships are for most Palestinian kids the only way out of the camps and in some cases even a ticket to study abroad.
Another study presented at the same conference evaluated the state of UNRWA schools in Lebanon’s Northern camps. Psychologist Dr Wissam Kheir’s on-going project studies the teachers’ perception of the school children. From the data collected so far he concluded that the perception of the teachers often varies from the children’s actual performance, which makes studies from the children’s perspective even more important. He found further that even some of the fourth graders did not know the alphabet and teachers showed violent behaviour against the children and social workers. A further challenge to the project were cultural limits. One survey he conducted along international standards included questions about sex and alcohol abuse, which resulted in many conservative teachers’ refusal to take part in the study.
After the presentations, UNRWA teachers attending the conference were given the opportunity to speak in an open discussion. They were quite upset after being blamed for not caring enough for their students and worse things. One woman said, she made the kids draw the alphabet in an arts class and that they enjoyed it very much but she got frustrated because there was no supportive network for these methods of teaching. The teachers denied the responsibility for not giving enough individual care but blamed the need to implement policies on the legal level in Lebanon for the integration of children with learning difficulties and to reduce the number of kids in UNRWA classes. They said they were overwhelmed by too many children, so all they could do was to send trouble makers to the back of the class, where they would not disturb the others, instead of giving them extra attention.
The poorly managed school system is just one more example where the Lebanese government has a lot of catching up to do. (Parents who can afford it usually favour private schools for their children’s education.) Until these problems will be solved and Palestinians in general get a better status in Lebanon, the kids grow up in an educational system best described as “survival of the fittest”, where scholarships and job opportunities are scarce.