A sign of caring and support (photo: Diane Garnette)
Answering a question can be tough (photo: Diane Garnette)
The teacher demands attention (photo: Diane Garnette)
A refugee camp, by definition, is supposed to be a temporary shelter. It is constructed to serve in an emergency; it is a way station for people who need to find a new home.
In the lands of the Near East, some refugee camps have become more than temporary places to live, even though the people in them do not think of them as home. The Baqaa camp, about 12 miles north of Amman, Jordan, has housed Palestinian refugees since the 1967 war ended. They dream of returning to their homes on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. They hold down the roofs of their one-story dwellings with stones and cement blocks to show that they dont intend to stay. But for now they have nowhere else to go.
It is especially hard on the children. All children need stability and permanence, the chance to put down roots in a place that they know is their own. They need to feel they are part of a tradition, not the nameless occupants of a makeshift neighborhood that grew up because of a war. The children of the camps need a chance to learn, to play, to discover that with love and hope and hard work they can build new lives.
The Pontifical Mission, sister organization of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association is helping to give the children that chance by building schools in the refugee camps. Since 1969, schools have been going up not only in Baqaa but also in the camps at Marka, Jarash and Souf. For the children, they are islands of stability in a sea of disruption. One thing at least remains constant in the displaced youngsters lives: they are going to school. For most of them, education represents the only hope of leaving the camp one day and finding employment and permanent homes.
In the camp at Baqaa, there are 24 elementary and secondary schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Of the 24 UNRWA schools, 15 were built by the Pontifical Mission. The total enrollment is more than 14,200, with approximately 6,854 girls and 7,392 boys taught by 369 teachers.
The Pontifical Mission has also built several of the Baqaa schools run by the Ministry of Education of the Jordan government. An additional 1,735 students 1,125 girls and 610 boys attend these schools, which are staffed by 80 teachers.
Numbers tell only part of the story, however. The goal of the Pontifical Mission is not to count heads, but to help train minds. Like children everywhere, the boys and girls in Baqaa have their own special talents and dreams. The task of the camp schools is to see that those talents and dreams are nourished and brought to fruition, not left to wither and die in the acrid atmosphere of poverty and bitterness.
Fathiyehs dream is to be a teacher. She can practice at home: although she is only 8, Fathiyeh has four younger sisters ranging in age from 7 to 18 months. Already she is helping her mother to take care of them. She likes Arabic best of all her subjects at school, and her teachers say she is quick and intelligent. Although she loves games, she does her homework before she goes outside to play with her friends.
If it werent for the UNRWA school she attends, Fathiyeh might never have a chance to stand on the other side of the desk. Her father is blind and cannot work; her mother has all she can do to take care of her disabled husband and five daughters. The familys only support comes from UNRWA; it is barely sufficient to feed them and keep up their sparsely furnished hut. There is nothing left over for tuition.
Hiyam, who is 8, knows how desperately the people in the camps need good medical care. She would like to be a doctor, and she will probably be an excellent candidate for professional studies. Hiyam is lively and bright, and gets along well with her schoolmates. She is diligent about doing her homework despite the inevitable distractions caused by two little brothers aged 6 and 3.
Hiyams father, an unskilled laborer, has not been able to work since he injured his hand and required surgery seven months ago. Hiyams mother does her best to care for the family and keep their plain dwelling clean. Without the Pontifical Mission schools, Hiyams goal would be only an impossible dream.
At 10, Omar still has plenty of time to choose a trade or profession, but he would probably make a good businessman. During the summer he works long hours, trying to sell vegetables and fruit to tourists along the roadside. Anything he can earn is sorely needed at home, because he has nine brothers and sisters and his father is an invalid. His mother is hard pressed to keep the familys small hut clean and neat, especially since it is so crowded. There is not much room to walk inside, because the mattresses the family sleeps on are spread out all over the floor. It is difficult for Omars mother to mind the children and care for her sick husband at the same time.
With the training he gets in the camp schools, Omar might be able to go to a university to study business administration or hotel management, where his ingenuity and ambition would be put to good use.
The schools that Fathiyeh and Hiyam and Omar attend would probably look forbiddingly plain to an American student. The older school buidlings are prefabricated; the newer ones are constructed of concrete blocks, with cement floors, fiberboard walls, and corrugated roofs. The walls are double to provide some insulation, because there is no heating in the winter. Because all the students in Baqaa are Moslem, every school has a prayer room so that the students can observe the Moslem times of prayer during the day.
Debra Schak, administrator of the Pontifical Mission office in Amman, says that the new schools are built with two stories, if possible, because a one-story building with the same amount of classroom space takes up a lot of acreage. One of the problems that builders face, she added, is that the camp sits in a valley, so its necessary to dig deeper in order to reach rock for the foundation.
In spite of the difficulties, however, construction continues. The camp is in real need of more schools at the present, says Miss Schak. In the past few years there has been a population explosion at Baqaa, she adds, so there are more children to educate. The official population is 63,773, but the actual count is around 80,000. By American standards thats a fair-sized city, and the last thing any city or town or village wants to do is neglect the education of its children.
If it does, the childrens gifts will be lost not only to their country but to the world. The children themselves will be locked into the same pattern of poverty and frustration that traps their parents. The climate of anger and hostility that pervades the refugee camps will continue to poison the inhabitants, even the ones who manage to break away.
Parents everywhere make sacrifices to obtain a good education for their children. They know it is the best hope their children have for achieving economic security, peaceful and productive family lives, and personal fulfillment. The parents in Jordans refugee camps are no different. They have watched their own dreams die, extinguished by war and injustice. They are determined not to watch their childrens dreams die too.
With the cooperation of the Pontifical Mission and UNRWA, children like Fathiyeh and Hiyam and Omar may have the opportunity that so many Western children take for granted: to plan a bright future and know that it can become a reality.
Claudia McDonnell is a freelance writer.