“We play all the roles — teachers, mental health counselors — all of it.”
Hollow buildings still scar the landscape of Gaza City’s Shujaiyeh neighborhood, the site of some of the heaviest bombardments and fiercest clashes during last year’s war between Israel and Hamas militants.
But even amid the ruins of Shujaiyeh, Palestinian children are back at school and ready to learn.
“My favorite thing about coming back to school is seeing my friends and teachers,” 9-year-old Bara’a Habib told Jehad Saftawi, a communications associate for the U.S.-based nonprofit the Institute for Middle East Understanding, when Saftawi visited her school in late August for a photo essay project. “This is my third day of school, and it’s going well.”
The Subhi Abu Karsh school — which teaches 1,016 boys and girls from 6 to 16 years old — was heavily damaged in the July-August 2014 war. When the students first returned last fall, there were gaping holes in the classroom walls.
A year later, the legacy of war still lingers. While most damage has been fixed, the walls of the Subhi Abu Karsh school are still being rebuilt, Saftawi said. Across Gaza, families have struggled to move back into damaged or destroyed buildings. The U.N.-supported effort to rebuild thousands of destroyed homes only started in earnest this summer, held up for a year by a lack of funds and security procedures that slow the entry of reconstruction materials into the blockaded Gaza Strip.
Student numbers are also down after families fled the neighborhood and had no home to return to. At least one student — 15-year-old Najiya Jehad Al Helou — was killed in the war, Saftawi said.
“The hardest part is dealing with different psychological trauma [of the students] — some become violent, some are introverted, and others have become handicapped or paralyzed after the war,” Fadwa Abu Salem, the school’s deputy director, told Saftawi. “We play all the roles — teachers, mental health counselors — all of it,” she said.
Just one street over, Beit Dajan school for boys has mostly finished repairing the war damage. For the first six months after the war, its 990 students, ranging from 7 to 15 years old, studied inside classrooms with blasted out windows and damaged walls. Now, the main challenge for the school is providing a quality education, with few resources, to children whose lives have been shattered by war.
“The economic situation is difficult for the children, for example their family may have been forced to leave their home … or their father is struggling to provide food and buy uniforms,” the school’s deputy director, Aamir Salah El Mbayed, told Saftawi. El Mbayed said he is desperate for more teachers — there are 40 children on average in each class, and he’d love to bring it down to 30 so that each child can get a minute or so of individualized attention.
Teachers at U.N. schools in Gaza went on strike this summer, citing a lack of resources and overcrowded classrooms. Many schools, including Beit Dajan and Subhi Abu Karsh, have been repeatedly damaged as Gaza went through three wars in six years. The latest war had the highest death toll of all — over 2,200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis killed — and damaged 258 schools and kindergartens in the Gaza Strip, 26 of them beyond repair.
Take a look at Saftawi’s portraits and excerpts from his interviews at the two schools below.
Mahmoud Majid Sokkar, 9 years old
“Last year I was afraid of going back to school. I was afraid they would repeat another war and we don’t want to die. But I didn’t feel afraid this year — now I’m used to it. I want to be a math teacher when I grow up because it’s my best subject.”
Alaa’ Habib, 9 years old
“When I grow up, I want to be a doctor and heal sick people. My house was affected during the war. We had small holes in the wall and a big hole in our kitchen, but my father fixed it.”
Mohammed Hani El Mamloki, 10 years old
“My favorite thing about school is that we get to learn. I’d like to have more books to learn more. My favorite schoolbook is for English, and my favorite teacher is my English teacher. When I grow up, I want to be an engineer.”
Bara’a Habib, 9 years old
“I like coming to school. This is my third day of school, and it’s going well. I want to be an Arabic teacher because it’s a beautiful subject, and I can read and understand it very well. I just really like it.”
Ameer El Mbayed, 10 years old
“I don’t feel afraid of going back to school. I feel ready again. We would play a lot and it became boring because we all missed school. My favorite subject is math and my favorite teacher is the Arabic teacher. When I grow up, I want to be a doctor.”
Mohammed Zakareia Al Banna, 9 years old
“The problems with kids in school were here before the war. We try to solve them by talking to each other. I wish I can change the system to prevent problems with kids. I want to be a doctor in the future, and I love all my teachers.”
Fadwa Abu Salem, deputy director of Subhi Abu Karsh school
“My favorite subject is English because it’s my specialization and it’s an international language. I’d love for all people to know [English] so they could understand other cultures, what they say, and what their opinions are about us.”
Aamir Salah El Mbayed, deputy director of Beit Dajan school
“What I like about teaching is making sure that I’m following up with the education of a student. If the students don’t keep learning, they lose what they learned. Following up with students is in their interest and in ours as educators.”