Independent Appeal: Children who can only dream about the world outside their school gates

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The Independent Online

Though he's a Muslim, 10-year-old Mohammed Yunis's dream is to go to Bethlehem on a field trip. "I would like to go to the Church of Nativity, because Jesus was born there," he announces during morning break in the overcrowded, rubble-strewn little lot that serves as the only school playground here.

Neither Mohammed, who knows that Jesus is a revered prophet in the Koran, nor his classmate Wissam Deeb, who more conventionally fantasises about seeing Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock, have ever been out of Deir al-Asal. They have not even been to Dura, some six miles away.

In fact school field trips of any kind though top of many children's wishlists are unknown in this remote, deeply impoverished village south west of Hebron, and about half a mile east of the Israeli military's separation barrier. So is much else that children on the other side of the barrier would take for granted.

"We need a football field," says Luay Anwar Shawama, 14. "There isn't one anywhere in the village."

"It would be good," says his classmate Hussein Ahmed, "if we had some trees." Shireen Shawama, 11, one of the girls crowding round the all-too-rare visitors from the outside world, says: "We need a library ... We need computers."

And there is only one lavatory per 100 children. "We need more bathrooms," adds Shireen, "and we needs taps that are not in the bathrooms where you can drink water."

Such is Deir al-Asal's poverty that many of the parents here, says school the principal, Awni Fakhir, have not yet been able this year to pay the 40 shekel (5) annual tuition fees.

And there is another difficulty. International donors have boycotted the Palestinian Authority since Hamas won the elections 15 months ago. This has dried up the salaries which allowed public servants, including Deir al-Asal's teachers to try to keep their extended families afloat.

But the key problem is that Israel's closures of the border have devastated Deir al-Asal's economy.

With about 40 per cent of the village dependent on agriculture, says Mr Fakhir, Israel's security barrier has swallowed or closed off some 175 acres of cultivated land mainly olive groves. And it cut the farmers off from hilly sheep pastures they had used for generations.

Worse still, before the intifada 60 per cent of the villagers who had jobs worked in construction jobs, mostly in Israel. Today the only Israel the village sees is what Mr Fakhir says is the near-daily patrol of a military jeep. For the work permits have now dried up. And those without permits even supposing they can find a way to sneak through a dangerous gap in the barrier 18 miles away are subject to arrest, unaffordable 300 fines or a four month prison sentence.

All this has compounded the already-critical social problems faced by a school where exam results are by Mr Fakhir's own admission "very bad" with only a 35 per cent level of Arabic passes in the ninth grade.

Not least of these problems is a high level of pupil-to-pupil violence in the school which Mr Fakhir estimates affects 90 per cent of 426 children. Three pupils have been stabbed in recent years. Much of this is bred at home where an already high level of domestic violence is increased by tensions caused by male unemployment. There are also disputes within and between the village's three main clans, which spill into the classroom and schoolyard.

Even the teachers are not immune, pupils say, from giving unruly children the rough end of the lengths of hoses they carry, supposedly to usher them into queues before classes.

It is into this daunting background that a gentle soft-spoken man named Harb Tubas has arrived. Mr Tubas is a graduate trained in counselling at Hebron University. He is the co-facilitator of a project called Al Madad, Protective Spheres, which is funded by Save the Children one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

Reducing the violence is one of his key goals. He therefore does not punish the children but coaxes them often for the first time in their lives into self-expression about what concerns them most. One component of this process is to ask the children anonymously to fill in the bubbles in cartoon scenes of familiar situations.

Much of the children's private misery is exposed in what they write: "You dog, how dare you speak to me like this?" the bigger of two fighting boys is saying to another he has brought to the ground. "Don't hit me I am your little brother," the victim is saying.

Another picture shows a father raising his arm to a weeping woman, with two anxious children in the foreground. "Who is the man you were walking with?" The woman is replying: "I did not walk with any man."

Mr Tubas uses painfully raw texts to stimulate discussions in groups and individually to talk about the problems that lead to violence. "I expect," he explains, "gradually the children will start expressing themselves in a constructive way and to interact with less violence."

In fact the project, which is a pilot scheme, is already showing results, according to the principal. "Behaviour problems are less which means that we can shift the attention we continually focus on behaviour to teaching and the curriculum," he says. He is not optimistic that the project alone can solve the children's problem but says he has a "big hope" that it can be reduced by some 30 per cent.

Certainly the patently genuine warmth of the reception for Mr Tubas in the class of 13-15 year-olds by chance all members of the big Shawama clan testifies to the popularity of his sessions. Nor are the boys shy about praising Mr Tubas's sessions. "It has taught me to see the difficult feelings and emotions," says Hamad Abu Jalil Shawama, 15. "If I see people fighting, I try to pull them apart." Mr Tubas says: "We want to have the children living in a safer environment. The most important thing is that the children start believing in themselves."

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