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Meet the Palestinian building preschools to help children to survive and thrive

Sulieman Mleahat, Education Programme Director at American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA)
Sulieman Mleahat, Education Programme Director at American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) [Sulieman Mleahat]

The fundamental right to education is enshrined in international law. For decades, though, the education sector in Palestine has had to contend with the oppressive and violent imposition of Israel's illegal occupation. It has undoubtedly had a negative effect.

Schools have been damaged and demolished, and equipment has been confiscated. Coupled with enforced closures this has restricted children's access to education, and Palestinian pre-schoolers have not been exempt from such difficulties. And yet this is the most significant stage of a child's education, the Education Programme Director at American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera) has told me.

"The early childhood period from conception to five years old is the most critical period in anyone's life, as it is when children form their personality, and their cognitive and language skills," explained Sulieman Mleahat. "As such, nutrition, safety, health, stimulation and care are all critical in the first five years of anyone's life. You can pretty much determine a person's life from how they've lived and grown up in the early years' period."

Having spent his own early childhood living in a poor refugee community in southern Palestine, Mleahat feels compelled as an adult to work hard to improve the prospects for Palestinian children. The need to protect Palestinians' access to education is more urgent now than ever before, he said. "I am only too aware of what a quality education can have on a child's future. It is transformative in every sense of the word."

Destroying the hope and means of education, and with it the future of Palestinian children and youth, Israel prevents Palestinians from building schools and other public structures by denying them building permits. Those Palestinian schools which do exist have long been subjected to Israeli violence. Just this week, the Israeli army has threatened to blow up Al-Aqsa School and Al Bouraq School in the Gaza Strip as they prepare to accommodate people displaced by the occupation state's latest military offensive.

At least 212 Palestinians have been killed, including 61 children, in Israel's onslaught on Gaza since 10 May, according to the Ministry of Health in the territory. More than 11,305 people have also been wounded, with dozens of buildings destroyed or damaged in the bombardment. As a result, at least 52,000 people now have nowhere to live. As the offensive against Palestinians continues, many fear that threats to bomb the schools may become a reality, not least because the so-called Israel Defence Forces have a track record of attacking schools.

READ: Palestinians head to UNRWA schools for refuge as Israeli bombing campaign continues

During the 2014 Israeli offensive against the largely civilian population in Gaza, the Israelis destroyed 24 schools. Furthermore, Israeli artillery killed at least fifteen Palestinians sheltering in a UN-run school and another seventeen in a nearby street market. In February 2018, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that at least 45 schools in Palestine were facing the threat of destruction by the Israeli occupation authorities.

Anera was established in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War to meet the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees. It is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) investing in the renovation of schools and training for early years' teachers in Palestine and Lebanon. Over the past five decades it has spent tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian, agricultural, water, sanitation, education and health programmes.

Sulieman Mleahat holds a Master's degree in international development from the University of Bristol in Britain, with a focus on Early Childhood Development and Quality Basic Education.

"Preschool plays an important part in bringing up children in Palestine," he pointed out. "It offers the opportunity for children to receive meals and healthcare, and to be provided with good stimulation for the cognitive development of the brain. Without such stimulation, then it starts closing down and it's highly unlikely that you're going to be reinvigorated."

Children in the occupied West Bank – which has been gripped by a wave of violence in recent weeks – suffer the effects of serious, prolonged trauma, in numbers that are "too big to determine". The hostile environment has a severe impact on their psychosocial condition and development, thereby further impacting adversely their capacity to receive an education of an acceptable standard.

"I see the impact that the occupation has on the Palestinian people. It affects the way that they communicate as they tend to get more violent. Mental health problems are common. There are many risk factors associated with growing up as a Palestinian child in the West Bank, Gaza and refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Investment in early years' education tends to address and lessen the impact of those factors. Preschool education is one of the strongest ways to support young children to survive and thrive."

READ: In the battle for liberation, Gaza is closer to Jerusalem than Ramallah is

When Mleahat joined ANERA in 2010, the preschool education sector in Palestine was in a "terrible state" lacking basic facilities and with only 30 per cent of children in attendance. The Ministry of Education was unable to provide the means for planning, synchronisation and budgeting whilst handling the overall situation of the students' growth within the context of the ongoing Israeli occupation.

"Most preschools were not fit for the care and education of children and almost all teachers had no qualifications for teaching that age group," he noted. "At the time, the ministry ran only two preschools and the bulk of preschool education was met by the private and charitable sector, with mixed standards of care and education."

In short, it seems as if the preschool sector and age group were simply neglected because politicians didn't recognise the importance and value of such education. Thus, in collaboration with the ministry and other organisations seeking to engender greater interest and investment for the preschool sector, ANERA has upgraded and equipped over 200 preschools and trained over 1,000 teachers in the past decade.

"Our mission for the next ten years is straightforward," concluded ANERA's Education Programme Director. "We want to build as many preschools as possible so that children have safe and stimulating environments with good pedagogy so that they – and Palestine – have a better future."

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