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.

A Tripoli Trip to a Palestine Refugee Camp

Friday night, at the Hisham Hotel, Amman.

Yesterday I was in Tripoli visiting an girls’ elementary school in a Palestine refugee camp. I was there with a couple of UNRWA staff (UNRWA is the UN agency for Palestine refugees). The point of the visit, along with other visits throughout Jordan and Lebanon this week, was to get a sense of the way in which human rights was being integrated as part of the curriculum. My job this week has been to essentially listen to people tell me their ideas and opinions.

Say “human rights” and, depending on where you say it and who you say it to, you will get reactions ranging from ignorance, acceptance, indifference, outrage, and anything else in between. In other words, it’s hard to predict. Before going to the school in the camp, I had the chance to listen to members of different “Popular Committees” from the camps – basically the elders (all male). The reactions from some of them were quite strong: they wanted the full realization of their rights as refugees – and NOW. There wasn’t much I could do other than listen and tell them I’d taken note of what they said, and appreciated their honesty.

Human rights – at least the way I see it concerning children’s education, is not so much as telling them what rights they do have/could have/don’t have, but creating an environment in which students (and teachers) respect each other and live and learn in dignity. If that’s a culture that ends up spreading more towards the students’ families and the broader community, all the better. It’s not to say that there are certain human rights issues teachers should avoid teaching (after all, they are refugees and some topics will inevitably arise). But, as a friend in Beirut told me earlier this week: it’s not a question of choosing the issues, rather it’s finding the right way to teach each issue. He was making particular reference to teaching about the death penalty, but it’s an argument that extends to all rights.

They warmed up to me eventually.

Visiting the girls’ school was a further validation of the importance of education. Three students from the school parliament sat in the Head teacher’s office with us to talk about the activities they’ve done to create a healthy school environment. The parliament’s role extends beyond a clean school: it also serves as a platform for students to express their opinions, questions, and grievances to the school management. From what the girls were saying, it works. Although one shyly admitted that she asked to realize her rights by asking the teachers to take the students up to the mountains but was refused. (Well, Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child does say a child has a right to be heard. Whether or not someone’s listening on the other end is another matter. But then again, I’m wondering what the connection is between a trip to the top of the mountains and human rights…).

The school’s efforts in promoting human rights are laudable given the resources available. But there is a lot more that could be done, which is the main reason why UNRWA is supporting the integration of human rights in its schools. Visiting the school was an acute reminder of my first experience in international development 18 years ago in Malawi, teaching at a girls’ school. The similarities between the school in Tripoli and the one in Malawi are numerous. The conditions in which the girls live (excluding the school) are deplorable, but despite that they strive to live a life of dignity and continue to do what children love most: to play and have fun. They are children after all.


Friday afternoon, in the workshop room

Took a break last night from writing. Two friends – IHRTP alumni – picked me up from the hotel and took me out to dinner. They both work for Caritas, a centre that works primarily for the protection of migrant workers. “Sri Lankans” as they are named here, despite the fact that the migrant workers originate from numerous countries. So it is not uncommon to speak of your “Sri Lankan from the Philippines.”

The conversation predictably revolved around our work, and for me it was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about what they do. We drove near a prison that Noha was planning to visit; she goes there to talk to migrant workers who have been detained for any number of reasons. They may have fled their employer (and subsequently have no identity papers) or been victims of abuse. Her colleague, Jeanne D’Arc, works with Iraqi children who are refugees. As part of her IHRTP Individual Plan, she’s trying out some Play it Fair toolkit games with the children.

As we drove into town, the sights and sounds of a densely populated city crept upon us. Moving through winding roads, we made our way into the centre. A couple of teenagers foraging through garbage bins by the side of the road, a billboard for the “Shoot Shop” displaying guns, ammo, booze and cigars with a man holding a rifle, its glowing barrel pointed towards the store entrance. Expert driving through the narrowest of streets led us first to a brief visit to meet the family, then we were off to dinner.

The long ride back to the hotel left me pensive of the day’s events. The Education team led the activities in the morning by splitting the group into two and having each group focus on two different questions. One group discussed what kinds of personal values they would like to change, while the other group discussed the values they would like to see change in others through HRE. The team had decided there would be no reporting back; it was simply a discussion, two sides of the same coin. I am beginning to value this type of exchange more and more in workshops. Obviously, it is not possible in all circumstances, but if there are enough facilitators (and a manageable number of participants), you can do stuff which brings people to the same point (sort of) by taking different paths.

Speaking of paths, the journey to decide on yesterday’s Education group activities was a struggle. There are five of us in the group, and the previous night we worked past midnight to figure out what we were going to do. Working together, I am realizing, is not always easy, even though we are working with people we have known for years and with whom we get along with. And even though I have worked countless times before with a group of facilitators, it was always done where I was 1) pretty much in control, and 2) had developed the content. This was not the case here on both counts. But despite the bumps on the road, the Education group appreciates each other’s strengths and is committed to success. After a lunchtime meeting where we talked about our challenges, the team moved forward this evening by discussing what they will do tomorrow. It has been a learning experience for me, and I am thankful that I’ve gone through this process with them.

The rest of yesterday’s activities were under the stewardship of the Civil Society/State/Citizenship team, which did a marvelous job at keeping us alert and reflective by engaging us using a constant variety of techniques. It was, put simply, a joy to be a participant. Today was a strong day led by the same group, with a couple of their own bumps in the road. (Note: you cannot talk about fundamentalism and human rights in one hour. But they were good spirits about it and provoked our thinking.)

I have to go, going out to dinner with the whole group. Trying something different tonight, if the technology permits. I will videotape some participants and ask them to share their thoughts about this workshop, then I will try to upload the videos for you to hear things from them for a change.

More later, paul