The central square of Bethlehem has the Nativity church on one side and the mosque at the other. Nowadays both Muslims and Christians live in Bethlehem, and the city is surrounded by Jewish settlements. The infamous wall, meant to keep Israel and the Palestinian Territory separated, is running right next to neighbourhoods of Bethlehem. Fences and watch towers are not far away from the city centre. Bethlehem is also a city of refugee camps, that came into existence after the Israeli invasion of 1948. Many Palestinians were forced to leave their homes and lands. The camps with simple shelters have by now grown into boroughs where several generations are living together. Deheishe is the largest and most well-known of Palestinian refugee camps. In the neighborhood of Al Khader (Arabic for Saint George, who slayed the dragon) the Hope Flowers School is located, close to the separation wall and on the very edge of the West Bank.
‘Poignant is the location of the school right by the separation wall, on the boundary of the West Bank – a wall between the distinct worlds that are Palestine and Israel. The contrast in social atmosphere is stark: geographically they are close and adjacent, squeezed into such a small land, but psycho-socially they could be on opposite sides of the planet.’ *
Pioneer in peace education
Hope Flowers school has for over 30 years been a pioneer in constructive peace education for children in conflict areas. The school is focusing on children aged 5 to 14 who have been traumatised by conflict and who are exposed to poverty, malnutrition and lack of perspective. Eighty percent of the pupils is from Deheishe and other refugee camps in the area.
The team at Hope Flowers School uses its unique educational approach to face up to the difficult circumstances in Palestine as a direct result of the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Teachers integrate pedagogical insights and techniques of peace building into the curriculum, such as: handling difficult situations and frustration; expressing emotions and thoughts; discussing and deciding together in group conversations; cooperation; and active listening.
These were not theoretical lessons to peace studies: peace building and democratic practices were incorporated into school activities to train children personally for real life – it concerned their current situation. Language lessons taught real communication skills. Art involved drawing and painting traumatic situations, to help kids work out their feelings and transform their memories. Mathematics involved calculating quantities for reconstruction of buildings. Nature studies concerned actually growing food crops, and science involved learning how to fix the electrics or work out the volume of a water-cistern.’
A fine example of this special education in the curriculum is the ‘compassionate listening’ programme. It is for the pupils, but also for their parents and other family members.
‘The children are taught Compassionate Listening – sitting in a circle and lending complete attention to each other’s experience. It gives them ways of stretching their experience and understanding themselves beyond the framework of their own little worlds. Compassion isn’t about feeling sorry or even agreeing with others – it’s simply the art of witnessing, seeing what life looks like from the other side.’
For children and their families
Hope Flowers School has been expanded with the Hope Flowers Community Development Centre in 2004. The Community Centre has programmes for youngsters and adults. There are courses for computer skills and for small enterprise skills. There are training sessions for teachers from other schools who want to learn about peace education. And it is the place where family therapy sessions and empowerment trainings are held.
A psychologist is employed by the school, and she works for both the children and the teachers. Pupils with behavioural problems are coached by her. Often, the pupils wil engage in exercises and training together with their parents. Teachers learn how to handle pupils with severe disorders. When needed, other specialists are engaged.
‘Hope Flowers respects the inner sensitivities and subjectivities of children and it draws in parents and the wider community on a personal, friendship basis. Its aim is to remove the causes of violence from children and families living in a country where hardship levels are high, where tough stuff happens for many years now.’
Hope Flowers School engages in exchange programmes with Israeli schools and lets the children get in touch with other religions and cultures. In the early years there were joint lessons with jewish, christian and muslim children, but sadly now the Israeli authorities no longer allowed jewish children to come to the West Bank.
There is a tuition fee for children who enroll at the school, plus an additional charge which should cover most of the cost for transportation, meals and supplies (books, writing materials, uniforms). But many parents are unable to pay the (full) tuition fee because of the economic hardship in Palestine. External funds are needed to keep the school running, and there are supporting organisations in Switzerland, the UK, the USA and the Netherlands. There is a sustained negative balance which makes it hard to pay teachers adequately and to finance all activities.
* Quotations are from ‘Pictures of Palestine; A humanitarian blogging from Bethlehem’ (© 2012) written by Palden Jenkins (www.palden.co.uk/pop). He is an active volunteer for Hope Flowers School and knows it ‘from the inside’.