Building peace in the minds of men and women

Schools in the sand; saving half a million Arab refugee children

This century has become hardened to migrations, expulsions and "concentrations" oí human beings. These exoduses make the headlines for a few weeks and then the "refugees", the '"displaced persons", or the "deportees", sink into oblivion.

In the Middle East, today, there are nearly one million refugees from Palestine. They have no land to begin life anew and build another country. They are scattered in hundreds of camps... old army bivouacs, abandoned barracks, tent cities, and tin-can towns. But they have not been abandoned. Since 1948, help has been coming from the Arab States and from the United Nations.

Aid to children came first. These children were growing up among lost and bewildered adults. They had no other horizon but their camp, and no other images in their heads but the painful memories of their parents. The children ran the risk of becoming natives of that frightful modern Umbo, the universe of the refugee ignorant, bitter and useless.

At first a few dozen schools were started. These had the sky for a roof, then they went under canvas; at first they had neither desks nor pencils, then equipment arrived.

At present there are over 300 UNRWA-UNESCO schools attended by over 100,000 boys and girls while grants-in-aid enable a further 60,000 children to attend other schools, run privately or by governments. The Unesco General Conference last December and the Unesco Executive Board in March together allocated a total of $170,000 for the two year period, December 1954 to December 1956, as aid to schools for Arab refugees.

In these schools, children learn the Koran as they learn reading, writing and arithmetic. They also learn history and geography. They learn trades that spell independence for them. At present vocational training teachers are working in refugee schools with courses running from three months to two years. These schools offer a tremendous variety of job opportunities: printing, bookbinding, machine shop work, car maintenance, weaving, brush-making, carpentry, basket-making, photography, shoe-making, home economics/radio and electricity.

Finding teachers for these schools was no easy task. As recently as three years ago, only one-third of the teaching staff, all of it Palestinian in origin, was considered as qualified. Since then, more than a hundred teachers have been able to obtain sound pedagogic training at universities in Beirut and Damascus and at the Khadouri agricultural school in Jordan. In addition, future teachers are able to attend normal schools in Iraq and universities in Egypt. Finally, more than six hundred teachers have been given an in-service course in certain camps. Many young refugees are now going to secondary schools. For higher education, refugees have been admitted to Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian universities.

But what about the adults and even the adolescents who are too old to go to school? Is feeding the only way of helping them? They deserve the same opportunity as the children of the camps, for they, too, are hunting a way out of the stifling inertia of body and mind.

The camps, slowly but surely, are beginning to resemble villages where people can lead a normal life with a window on the outside world. The school is always their centre and it is always surrounded by flowers and vegetable gardens. Men of the camp fill its classrooms at night, not only to learn how to read and write for illiteracy is still high but also to hold meetings and discussions which serve the function of a study club or a municipal council, as the case may be.

Huge tents now shelter warehouses and workshops shoe-making shops, carpentry shops, clothing factories or cooperative bakeries. People no longer want to be left alone. They have slipped back into the daily relationships of work and of business and also of the sports which have dealt a final blow to boredom. Instead of being a statistical item, the refugee is now a producer and a citizen and, as his leaders say, "Life has a meaning for him."

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July 1955