Palestinian teacher Hanan Al-Hroub has been chosen as the best teacher in the world. She received the $1 million prize in a ceremony in Dubai, in which she stood tall and proud, like a much-loved Palestinian olive tree, whose roots are deep in the soil of the homeland, soaked with the blood of its martyrs. Al-Hroub wore a traditional dress embroidered by the hands of her fellow Palestinian women; every stitch carried their history back to their patient grandmothers and beyond. Her smile was those of the Palestinian children she teaches, whose suffering under occupation she described; the occupation that suffocates them, silences their laughter and steals their joy.
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This is the core of what Hanan Al-Hroub tried to address as she created and developed her very special and unique method of teaching her pupils. She combines fun and play with learning, decorating her classroom with bright colours and drawings. Using the humble resources at her disposal — often paid for out of her own pocket — she seeks to change children’s behaviour and build their confidence, instilling in them love for one another, and embedding morals and manners as they learn.
Hers is a serious attempt to compensate in part for what her pupils have lost as a result of what they see and hear every day, including the language and actions of Israeli troops near their homes and schools, affecting their families, neighbourhoods and villages. She has taught her pupils the belief that their eyes, hands and knowledge can resist weapons.
Hanan Al-Hroub was born and raised in the alleys of Dheisheh refugee camp and has experienced first-hand the suffering of its people. The camp is close to the city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, where she went to school. She married a Palestinian freedom fighter, Omar Al-Hroub, who took part in one of the most daring guerrilla operations in the occupied territories, the Dabboya operation, in Hebron in May 1980. When the guerrillas were being pursued in the mountains they attacked a group of settlers going from the illegal Kiryat Arba settlement to the Dabboya building near the Ibrahimi Mosque. Thirteen settlers were killed, including their military leader in Hebron, and dozens were injured. Months after the operation, the guerrillas were captured; Omar was imprisoned and spent many years in Israeli prisons before being released. It was then that he met and married his life partner who became the best teacher in the world.
It was ironic that Hanan Al-Hroub’s progress through the different stages of the teaching competition happened at a time when Palestinian teachers were on strike. Massive protests were held, even though the Palestinian security forces tried to prevent teachers from taking part. The security forces became the butt of many jokes as they stopped vehicles and buses to search for teachers in a society which stood in solidarity with those who teach their children good manners, nationalism and the right to resist the Israeli occupation.
The month-long strike revealed the weakness of the union that was forced on the teachers. However, it also highlighted their own unity and solidarity, regardless of their affiliations. This forced President Mahmoud Abbas to give a speech in which he responded to the will of the teachers, after all of his security forces’ efforts to contain them and disregard their demands had failed.
The selection of Hanan Al-Hroub as best teacher in the world was a fitting result in the face of some Palestinian officials, one of whom described the teachers on strike as “scum”. One such teacher used her own ability, determination and creativity, without much support, to emerge from the alleys of a refugee camp, inspired by her compatriots and her country’s history and collective memories of the stolen land and demolished homes. She is the embodiment of the ancient olive trees whose roots run deep in Palestinian soil and refuse to be uprooted. As for those who stood against the teachers, they should now keep quiet and reflect on their shame, if they do indeed possess any.
Hanan Al-Hroub’s award is a victory for every Palestinian teacher who has contributed to the development of those who will feature in and shape the future independent state. She deserves to stand tall and proud, as an example to us all.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 16 March 2016.