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The Hope Flowers Story




I awoke at 5.30, bolt upright. Staggering into the kitchen, I gazed blearily out of the window. A lovely dawning light blessed the monastery village of Irtas down the valley with a misty goldenness and, looking over at the watchtower, I wondered how those soldiers were doing. They might themselves be staring at this liminal dawn, wondering exactly why they need to keep watch over such a sublimely tranquil scene.

I started my day, blogging over breakfast. Around nine a taxi drove up. Visitors for Ibrahim, by the looks of it. I trotted downstairs. It was a Korean TV man with a multilingual visiting card and a Palestinian taxi-driving fixer. The Korean was concerned that Ibrahim was not on time – and where were the children?

“Welcome to Palestine! Well, Ibrahim’s running on Palestine Inshallah Time – and it’s the school holidays!” The taxi driver grinned, giving me a look as if to say “Sorry about this”.

I brought them upstairs. By the time the kettle was on, Ibrahim arrived, and they found themselves going back downstairs again, minus tea. Welcome to Palestine indeed – just take each moment as it comes!

After a while I went downstairs to say hello. Ibrahim asked me to take over an interview with the Korean, for TV. He had a security problem – the Issas were being watched and he said he was unsure about what to avoid saying, whereas I was a foreigner who’d be out of the country when the programme was broadcast. If something was problematic, they could blame it on me.

Well, yes, I could do it, but I needed twenty minutes to smarten up, and I was unprepared – I was still getting over yesterday in Jerusalem. Soon, two cameras were rolling, and I was answering questions about Hope Flowers.

I explained how the school had been started by Hussein Issa, a refugee raised in the Deheisheh refugee camp down the road. Working hard, he later studied social sciences and education at Bethlehem University. He knew that the effort he had made to change his life was not possible for all refugee children. In 1984, at age 36, he started a Montessori-based kindergarten up towards Beit Jala called Al Amal, Hope, for refugee kids.

Before long he discovered the extent to which children’s learning capacity was marred by psychological damage, undernourishment and disadvantage – he’d been like that himself. He developed ingenious methods to shift things, and thus began Hope Flowers’ innovative war-zone educational programme, from which nowadays other schools seek to learn.

As the children at Al Amal grew too old for kindergarten, it wasn’t right to consign them to ordinary schools where they could pick up destructive ways and neither was it right for them to have no education. So Al Amal started extending its brief. After seven years, following the first intifada of the late 1980s, it grew into a full-scale school, Hope Flowers, moving to its current building in Al Khader.

In the first intifada teenagers had thrown rocks and stones to battle with Israeli soldiers, and reprisals were heavy, long and disproportionate. Fathers were carted away, people died, there were lengthy curfews, houses were demolished, tanks rolled and shoot-outs echoed in the streets. This was witnessed first-hand by children. In the second intifada these children were teenagers, and their childhood experiences fanned the flames.

At Hope Flowers in the 1990s, a new emphasis on trauma recovery was needed to create a ground-level ‘deep peace’ to complement the Oslo Accords. This was not only for the children but also for teachers since, no matter how dedicated to peace teachers were, they still tended unconsciously to convey their stress and disturbances to the kids – teachers’ tolerance levels were themselves sometimes frayed. A counselling system was developed and new peace-building techniques were built into the curriculum. These included dealing with difficult situations, handling frustrations, speaking for one’s self, participating and voting in meetings, managing edgy situations and generally tackling life’s rigours.

These were not theoretical lessons in peace studies: peace-building and democratic practices were incorporated into school activities to train children personally for real life – it concerned their current situation. Language lessons taught real communication skills. Art involved drawing and painting traumatic situations, to help kids work out their feelings and transform their memories. Mathematics involved calculating quantities for reconstruction of buildings. Nature studies concerned actually growing food crops, and science involved learning how to fix the electrics or work out the volume of a water-cistern.

Families were found to unintentionally reinforce destructive patterns as a result of their own tensions, undoing the good work of the school, so family counselling and parenting groups were introduced. This became the basis of the school’s Listen to My Voice programme, which has over time attracted much attention and support from abroad. Its methods were evolved spontaneously, on a shoestring. Some methods such as ‘compassionate listening’ were imported, adapted and taught by foreign volunteers versed in psychotherapy and personal growth.

Up to 1999 there were Muslim, Christian, Jewish and secular children at the school. Religious teachers and community leaders from all faiths visited to teach the beliefs, customs and views of their communities. Children learned to understand people who were different from themselves. Arabs were taught Hebrew and Jews were taught Arabic, both also learning English. This interfaith aspect ended thanks to pressures from people and authorities on both sides, and the school became Palestinian only. But the kids are still taught intercultural understanding and a global perspective, to connect them with the wider world.

In the 1990s the school expanded on a wing and a prayer, driven mainly by faith and determination. It was partially supported by trusts, foundations and grant-givers in the West – these were the times of the Oslo Accords, when a sense of future was dawning in Palestine, and the West was investing in it. Money and practical support also came from the wider, extended Issa family itself. But there were still difficulties with the occupying Israelis, who performed house-searches and troop incursions, making everyone feel insecure.

In 2000 the second intifada broke out in response to the failure of the peace process. Hussein Issa also unexpectedly died from heart failure – overstrain – at the age of 52. The school went into survival mode, but Palestinians know that it’s important to keep things going even under duress. After a time of soul-searching, Ibrahim returned from the Netherlands to run the school with his mother Hind and sister Ghada, later joined by another sister, Hala, and assisted by a board of trustees, with a dedicated staff who all kept on with the work irrespective of events or finances.

They were under intense pressure and times were difficult. In 2002, despite active liaison with the Israeli authorities to protect the school, it was shelled, scaring the kids and their parents and damaging the school. Giving kids a feeling of safety, containment and security was essential and difficult, since everyone felt unsafe. At times they didn’t know whether there would be a tomorrow.

The age-old tourist trade in Bethlehem had collapsed and the local economy was crippled, forcing some parents to withdraw their children from school. Sometimes it was difficult or dangerous for children to get to school. There were long, arbitrary curfews, food shortages, sleepless nights and sundry privations, water and power were intermittent, and the prices of necessities rocketed.

Pupil numbers at Hope Flowers sank from 600 to 150, though by 2009 they were back to 350. Classes for older students were shut down because science and computer facilities plus advanced teaching were prohibitively expensive. Palestinians were becoming increasingly isolated behind the separation walls that were enclosing Bethlehem. School fees, $250 per year plus $250 for transport, meals and uniforms, became prohibitive for many, and the school’s scholarship fund, already over-subscribed, dwindled rapidly. It was an endless struggle to keep going.

Jewish children were withdrawn and joint projects with Jewish schools were cut by the Israeli authorities. This led to a bizarre situation where school groups would sometimes fly to Germany or France to meet groups from Israeli peace schools. The separation wall stopped children from outlying villages from coming to school and volunteers from abroad diminished in number, particularly because the school could not guarantee their safety.

At times the staff continued working unpaid. Sometimes they came to school upset, after sleepless nights and military actions, and sometimes they needed more attention than the children. Things were insecure, tetchy and funding from abroad nosedived. The road to the school was shut by the Israelis; there were local troop incursions; a few neighbouring houses were blown up and left as piles of rubble, since the Israelis believed they harboured terrorists. Ibrahim visited the West, doing presentations and interviews to raise support, and Ghada made grant applications back in Bethlehem but it was an uphill grind.

Things started improving from 2004 onwards as the intifada subsided and the Israelis pulled back, but life was tough. So much damage had been done, including psychological damage to children, families and whole communities.

Then there came a new threat, around 2005: the separation wall was to be built across the edge of the school’s property, demolishing the school cafeteria and cutting off the school from the countryside. The wall and an armed watchtower would be built right next to the school. This threatened to neuter its peace-building work.

Christians were leaving Palestine, Palestinian public opinion was polarised and resentment and extremism escalated, affecting the school. The depressed economy brought serious poverty to families, so the school started feeding kids. Children were edgy and traumatised.

I remember a touching story of one girl woken up by Israeli soldiers in her bedroom, pointing guns at her and shouting. Her hair turned white at the age of six. Many of these soldiers are themselves young, their social skills unformed, and their training prepares them only to shoot first and think later. Kids were peeing their pants in class, becoming disruptive or unmotivated. School property was wrecked; teachers were going nuts; Ibrahim was arrested by the Israelis, suspected of harbouring a terrorist. Later he was accused by Palestinians of collaboration with the Israelis, and he was penalised badly by both in turn.

It was a long, long nightmare and only the remarkable commitment and dedication of teachers, staff, counsellors and trustees held the school together. Support from abroad gradually increased again as the troop incursions subsided – this was when I got involved – but it was always insufficient, and generating support was hard work. The school nevertheless struggled along.

Things slowly got better and a semblance of regularity returned. The Israelis generally stayed away after the building of the wall. It is now further away from the school over the valley, thanks to pressure from international supporters. A new military watchtower glowered down, but from over on the far hill rather than on top of the school. Teachers and students learned to accept this, but visiting internationals still feel intimidated by it.

Hope Flowers then started a Community Development Centre, first at the school, later in Deheisheh, to run extramural programmes for adults and youth. It runs women’s empowerment courses, micro-business and teacher training, it trains helping professionals and civic workers in handling conflict-related situations and it carries out parenting classes and family therapy, engaging in a wide approach to community reconstruction. All this arose from the observation that children are not separate from their families’ and wider community issues, and the whole spectrum of relationships needs addressing if a society is to revive after experiencing horror.

International support provides only part of the funding needed and no steady, consistent funding supports the basic, regular overheads. Paying teachers’ already modest salaries is always a worry. Funding trusts are rigorous in their requirements, few of them knowing how things actually work in Palestine – things don’t happen as efficiently or according to plan as in the West, so trusts sometimes believe the school is ineffective. They seek accountability, research figures and independent verification to a level that diverts resources from the school’s core work.

It’s a lot of run-around for a small organisation with insufficient staff and resources. Each grant application is a lottery, with a long wait and a high chance of refusal. Frequently a grant application is turned down not because of the merits or demerits of the application but simply because there were too many applicants chasing too few funds.

It’s tricky assessing how much foreign funding actually benefits the school, since the work-input doesn’t necessarily match the benefit. But the school perseveres since it cannot do without these funds. Some locals think the school is rich, receiving millions, and suspect that it taps a motherlode of foreign funding – they are incorrect. Foreigners think the school is such a good cause that surely it must receive generous funding – they too are incorrect.

In 2007 I co-wrote a £180,000 grant application to the UK government to support teacher training, to teach the school’s methods to 180 teachers from around the West Bank. After six months’ work, a visit by Ibrahim to Britain and 37 pages of submissions, it came to nothing. The government changed its policies after our application had been submitted, switching aid from education to law enforcement and media. We had been encouraged by an official to apply on peace-educational grounds, then on anti-terror grounds, then back to peace-educational grounds – each demanding a re-write – but the effort was in vain. One official said ours was the best submission he had seen for years, but he was posted to Singapore and we lost our champion.

Working with international volunteers also had its difficulties. They frequently applied to come for only a week or a month, often at the wrong time of year, during summer. Trouble is, it can take a month to get used to being here. Most spoke no Arabic, and many failed to understand beforehand how rigorous life can be in Palestine, or they get upset when things get challenging or chaotic. Checkpoints, soldiers and life in a different culture can be demanding for young people. They came and went, disrupting the normal flow of the school and themselves requiring support and supervision. So the volunteer programme has been scaled down, made more selective. Not a happy decision, but necessary.

The school’s great asset is its knowledge and experience. As an independent school operating in a situation where real results have been desperately needed, it has innovated and experimented its way through life, developing advanced expertise. One helpful factor was the relative weakness of government intervention, in the earlier years of the 1980s when the PA didn’t exist or in the 1990s while it was in the process of organising itself. This allowed the school to develop its own standards and methods, making it a standard-setter. This is why I was here, not just to support Palestinians, but because it’s a ‘beacon school’ in the field of conflict-transformation, worldwide.

So, welcome to Hope Flowers. It is of considerable consequence in our day, contributing to dealing with the effects of conflict by addressing its social-psychological causes. This is the gist of what I told the Korean TV man on camera. Korea and Palestine share some history, both being countries that were partitioned in the late 1940s, with chronic and acute conflict alternating ever since. Perhaps that’s why this man came.


NEXT: City of the Patriarchs

© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop

 
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