New Videos to Promote a Better Understanding of Human Rights Education for Palestine Refugees

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) recently released three new animated videos to help promote a better understanding of the human rights education program it has in its schools. The videos, each about five minutes or less, illustrate some of the human rights education activities that take place in UNRWA schools; UNRWA operates schools in five Fields (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza). I’m pleased to have participated in this project by working on the screenplays for each video.

The first video is about equality between boys and girls:
Here’s the first video, with a description from UNRWA: “Palestine refugee students of all ages learn about human rights in their everyday lives through the Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme, funded by the United States. In this short animation, young boys and girls learn to respect each other’s rights regardless of gender.”

The second video is about human rights in local communities. 
Here’s the description from UNRWA: “In this short animation, young girls discover their rights in the community, in particular the right to a clean environment. The clip forms part of the United States-funded Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme, through which Palestine refugee students of all ages learn about human rights in their everyday lives.”

Finally, the third video is about learning to stand up to bullies. 
Here’s the description from UNRWA: “In this short animated clip, young girls learn how to respond to a bully and stand up for their rights. The clip forms part of the United States-funded Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme, through which Palestine refugee students of all ages learn about human rights in their everyday lives.”

A Letter to My Sons: City of Dreams, Gaza

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

 

I’m back in Jerusalem, writing to you from the comfort of a guesthouse that’s part of a cathedral over one hundred years old. It’s relatively quiet save for the traffic outside my window, my room is sparse but pleasant, with archways defining a ceiling three times my height, and a garden a few steps away that a travel enthusiast would probably label as quaint or charming.

 

I do my best to appreciate my surroundings, but doing so after a trip to Gaza only compounds the conflicting thoughts I have in processing what I’ve just experienced. I have felt sadness and anger, frustration and disbelief, despondency and despair; yet in equal measure I have seen tenacity and hope, cheerfulness and gentleness, dedication and stoicism.

 

Over three years ago, in my first letter to you from Gaza, I described the beach view from my hotel window as “beautiful, and it’s full of garbage.” This time, my hotel offered a similar view, although added to the garbage were piles of rusted scrap metal and heaps of crumbled concrete. The scenery going through town and all over the Gaza Strip wasn’t all that different; it was dirty, but once in a while you saw a massive, stinking garbage bin in which people with busted brooms dumped their crap. There were occasional mounds of concrete where buildings once stood. Once in a while you’d see a mosque or an apartment building that would look fine and you’d wonder why no one was in it until you’d turn the corner and realize the front had been bombed to pieces, steel rods sticking through pulverized foundations.

 

There are no traffic lights that work. Banged up cars share the road with carts pulled by ragged donkeys and emaciated horses, trucks that would have failed any road safety check just about anywhere else on the planet, and a parade of international vehicles including the armoured one I was in. Billboards have layer upon layer of faded, posterized martyrs either looking thoughtful or brandishing guns and rocket launchers. The buildings are grey and brown and the roads are just as drab. There are plenty of people milling about, some merchants selling fruits and vegetables in their carts, others smacking the dust off their displays of children’s clothing or cheap toys made in China. Flocks of uniformed students pour out from the walled schools and flood the streets with their brightly coloured cheap backpacks adorned with Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob, and Mickey Mouse always offering their best smiles. Candy wrappers littering the ground mark the students’ homeward journeys.

 

As we drove up to the blue gates of one school yesterday, the words “We need homes” were spray painted in red. After the violence and destruction that shook Gaza last summer, there are still thousands of people who have no homes left, and with winter’s sting approaching, the suffering of many will only worsen.

 

I felt tremendous trepidation coming to Gaza this time. I wanted to know how people were doing without prying. When I asked a friend how things were, he looked at me and spoke with his usual, even tone: “My father passed away two days before the end of the war.” Upon seeing my face, he went on to explain that his father did not die as a result of the violence this past summer, but that he’d been battling illness for some time. Still, I reflected somberly, how horrible for his last days to be spent under the veil of constant fear.

 

My friend told me that it was the first time he’s ever felt truly frightened and helpless. “We were staying at a safe house at one point,” he told me. “I received a call telling me that the house was going to be bombed within five or ten minutes. But when I phoned the police, they could not verify the threat. I didn’t know what to do, so I told the people inside the house about the threat, and they kept on asking me to tell them what to do. But how could I know what was right? What if I told them to go elsewhere and that place would be bombed? How can I have this responsibility to tell someone what to do? I can’t do that, I simply can’t.”

 

He decided to stay in the safe house and insisted others make their own decision as to stay or go. In the end, everyone stayed and the house was not bombed. His story reflects only one moment from that horrible time, a time in which he, like so many others, felt defenseless. The depth of fear and despair Gazans suffered was enough for many people I met to label what happened as a “war,” whereas in the past, there were conflicts or incursions.

 

People are still recovering from the devastation; later that day my friend said his colleagues went to the beach “for stress relief because of the war.” Going to the beach doesn’t sound like much, but when there is so little to begin with, a group of colleagues going to the beach together is as much therapy or freedom or stress relief or faith in God to keep their spirits up and show up for work tomorrow.

 

The teachers I met over the past three days play a significant role in helping children keep their spirits up while providing a safe and sheltered environment in school. I saw them encourage students to express themselves, to be creative, to participate in class and to proudly assert the rights they have, or at least should have. In one activity in which Grade 3 students drew a new city where they would all like to live, one student showed his artwork and explained to the class, “This is Freedom City. And there’s a school here, because that’s where we go to learn.” Another child’s city was “City of Dreams,” and was drawn next to the sea.


To a cynic, such an activity is meaningless, and if anything gives false hope to children who will more than likely live in poverty for years to come. But human rights education has always been more than learning about rights. It’s about helping create a culture of human rights among all people so that we can live a life of dignity and treat others as we would want to be treated by them. Hoping for a City of Dreams in a place that is so often associated with despair, destruction, and hate gives me reason to believe that today’s children will have the strength to dream and contribute towards a better world than the one we’re living in. If a child can do that while living in Gaza, there’s still hope that they will be kinder than those who today act only through violence.

 

I guess I’m hoping for a City of Dreams too.

 

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam.

 

Let’s get it right: teaching Palestine children about rights

I’m enjoying a beer in a dimly-lit bar next sitting next to three guys who splashed themselves with revolting amounts of cologne before walking in this place. They’re yelling at each other, the way guys yell at each other around here and it looks like they’re pissed off at each other but they aren’t. My beer is cold, I’m tired from working too much but still feel damn good.

Participants during a training workshop in Jordan. Photo © UNRWA. 
The past eleven days have been relentless. With some friends at the UN here in Jordan and Lebanon, I’ve facilitated five workshops, four of them identical and the last one awfully similar to the other four, only longer. The participants attending the workshops were head teachers, education specialists, and other education staff working for UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestine refugees).
The content of the workshops was straightforward: to present a new human rights toolkit to be used by all 19,000 UNRWA teachers in the five fields of operation: Jordan, Syria, West Bank, Lebanon and Gaza. The agency’s been including human rights in its teaching practices for the past dozen years, but not in a consistent way. The time was right to have an agency-wide approach, and to this end a teacher’s toolkit was developed in English and Arabic and ready to be launched.
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, for which I’m grateful. The toolkit doesn’t provide anything radically new, at least in terms of human rights education methods that have been used in other places, but a lot of it is new for teachers of Palestine refugees.
During the workshops, participants got the chance to practice some of the toolkit’s 40 activities meant for use in the classroom. All the activities emphasize children’s participation and focus on one or more themes that shape the toolkit’s structure, including diversity, conflict resolution and strengthening community links. Participation isn’t enough, though. There’s also an emphasis on critical thinking, and that means children grapple with potentially heavy issues: gender inequality, various forms of discrimination, the right to a nationality and to return to their homeland, among others. But as one head teacher lamented, “Why should we teach children about human rights when we don’t even have them? We can’t go back home, we don’t have our nationality, most of us can’t work, we don’t have enough money and we live in poverty. We have almost nothing.” My answer, coming from an inescapable position of privilege, sounded hollow: “Think of what their education would be like if you didn’t educate them about their rights. Not having rights is no excuse not to learn about them.”
The starkness of children’s lives in the refugee camps was acknowledged – it’s been a way of life for over 60 years; it’s regrettable and for the moment inevitable. Despite this, the participants kept up an encouraging level of positivity throughout the workshops. I honestly thought I’d lose interest in facilitating the same thing five times in 11 days, but the workshops remained fresh and I tried to learn from my mistakes and improve from one workshop to the next. Now I sit content and assured that, for the most part, the toolkit was accepted by those trained and its future in UNRWA looks promising. When addressing an issue as potentially explosive as human rights for refugees whose rights are not fully enjoyed, I’m grateful for the delicate work undertaken by UNRWA staff in the past to encourage the acceptance of human rights education among reluctant teachers, angry or uninformed parents with staunch views, and a host of political parties that easily dismiss the notion of rights.
Of course not everyone was convinced. There was one participant in nearly every workshop who dismissed the toolkit by saying it was nothing new. Another participant told me much the same thing and added that “Perhaps there are human rights violations in countries like America, but we don’t have such things in my community.” Citing a specific example of rights violations, he went on to say that there was plenty of domestic violence in the US, but such was not the case where he lived. “I’ve never seen any.”
I quelled my initial reaction to dismiss his assertions and prepared myself to belt out a polemic that would put him in his place, but I kept my mouth shut and saw through the corner of my eye a growing number of hands raised throughout the room. The indignant stares of other participants – both women and men – were all I needed to rest assured that my thoughts would be reflected in their words. And indeed they were. As one woman said, echoing my earlier words, “You don’t have to teach about human rights only when your rights are violated. Everyone needs to learn about human rights.” Besides, another participant noted, there is domestic violence everywhere, only it isn’t always talked about. Their reactions were a relief to me, but his comments were a sad reminder that, even among those who are charged with the responsibility to educate children about tolerance, equality, and dignity, there’s still a lot of educating that needs to take place. But nothing’s going to stop the spread of a “culture of human rights” – it’s alive and well where Palestine refugees live, and it’s time for for the rest of the world to know about it.
The guys have left the bar, my beer glass is empty and this techno music sucks. Time for bed.