Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Let's get it right: teaching Palestine children about rights


I’m enjoying a beer in a dimly-lit bar next sitting next to three guys who splashed themselves with revolting amounts of cologne before walking in this place. They're yelling at each other, the way guys yell at each other around here and it looks like they’re pissed off at each other but they aren’t. My beer is cold, I’m tired from working too much but still feel damn good.

Participants during a training workshop in Jordan. Photo © UNRWA. 
The past eleven days have been relentless. With some friends at the UN here in Jordan and Lebanon, I’ve facilitated five workshops, four of them identical and the last one awfully similar to the other four, only longer. The participants attending the workshops were head teachers, education specialists, and other education staff working for UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestine refugees).

The content of the workshops was straightforward: to present a new human rights toolkit to be used by all 19,000 UNRWA teachers in the five fields of operation: Jordan, Syria, West Bank, Lebanon and Gaza. The agency’s been including human rights in its teaching practices for the past dozen years, but not in a consistent way. The time was right to have an agency-wide approach, and to this end a teacher’s toolkit was developed in English and Arabic and ready to be launched.

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, for which I’m grateful. The toolkit doesn’t provide anything radically new, at least in terms of human rights education methods that have been used in other places, but a lot of it is new for teachers of Palestine refugees.

During the workshops, participants got the chance to practice some of the toolkit’s 40 activities meant for use in the classroom. All the activities emphasize children’s participation and focus on one or more themes that shape the toolkit’s structure, including diversity, conflict resolution and strengthening community links. Participation isn’t enough, though. There’s also an emphasis on critical thinking, and that means children grapple with potentially heavy issues: gender inequality, various forms of discrimination, the right to a nationality and to return to their homeland, among others. But as one head teacher lamented, “Why should we teach children about human rights when we don’t even have them? We can’t go back home, we don’t have our nationality, most of us can’t work, we don’t have enough money and we live in poverty. We have almost nothing.” My answer, coming from an inescapable position of privilege, sounded hollow: “Think of what their education would be like if you didn’t educate them about their rights. Not having rights is no excuse not to learn about them.”

The starkness of children’s lives in the refugee camps was acknowledged – it’s been a way of life for over 60 years; it’s regrettable and for the moment inevitable. Despite this, the participants kept up an encouraging level of positivity throughout the workshops. I honestly thought I’d lose interest in facilitating the same thing five times in 11 days, but the workshops remained fresh and I tried to learn from my mistakes and improve from one workshop to the next. Now I sit content and assured that, for the most part, the toolkit was accepted by those trained and its future in UNRWA looks promising. When addressing an issue as potentially explosive as human rights for refugees whose rights are not fully enjoyed, I’m grateful for the delicate work undertaken by UNRWA staff in the past to encourage the acceptance of human rights education among reluctant teachers, angry or uninformed parents with staunch views, and a host of political parties that easily dismiss the notion of rights.

Of course not everyone was convinced. There was one participant in nearly every workshop who dismissed the toolkit by saying it was nothing new. Another participant told me much the same thing and added that “Perhaps there are human rights violations in countries like America, but we don’t have such things in my community.” Citing a specific example of rights violations, he went on to say that there was plenty of domestic violence in the US, but such was not the case where he lived. “I’ve never seen any.”

I quelled my initial reaction to dismiss his assertions and prepared myself to belt out a polemic that would put him in his place, but I kept my mouth shut and saw through the corner of my eye a growing number of hands raised throughout the room. The indignant stares of other participants – both women and men – were all I needed to rest assured that my thoughts would be reflected in their words. And indeed they were. As one woman said, echoing my earlier words, "You don't have to teach about human rights only when your rights are violated. Everyone needs to learn about human rights." Besides, another participant noted, there is domestic violence everywhere, only it isn't always talked about. Their reactions were a relief to me, but his comments were a sad reminder that, even among those who are charged with the responsibility to educate children about tolerance, equality, and dignity, there’s still a lot of educating that needs to take place. But nothing’s going to stop the spread of a “culture of human rights” – it’s alive and well where Palestine refugees live, and it’s time for for the rest of the world to know about it.

The guys have left the bar, my beer glass is empty and this techno music sucks. Time for bed.

No comments: