Christmas Appeal: Hope for the children of Bethlehem

In the midst of conflict between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers, committed teachers are transforming pre-school education in the occupied territories.
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Indy Politics

There is a little Christmas tree in the second-floor flat where Sana Dawabshe, a former nursery teacher, lives with her husband and two small sons. There is also a figure of Santa Claus, behind which a painted glass sign proclaims "Merry Christmas". Nothing surprising about that, you might think, particularly since she lives in Bethlehem. But Sana is a Palestinian Muslim.

Sana explains. Her neighbours are Christian Palestinians and her sons - five-year-old Eyal and three-year-old Ebal - did not want to be left out. But there is more to it than childhood peer pressure. "I don't think there is a real difference between Christians and Muslims," she adds reflectively. "This is a great thing for tolerance."

Sana's belief in tolerance, which extends well beyond her Christian neighbours, is something of a triumph of the human spirit. You only have to step outside the steel-panelled front door of her apartment building - which is wholly deserted apart from her family and that of her Christian neighbours - to realise that there is probably no bleaker corner of the town where Christ is said to have been born 2005 years ago tomorrow.

Overlooking the door are two Israeli military watchtowers, covering a desolate stretch of wasteland. Just 10 metres away, not far from Rachel's Tomb - the religious monument that Jewish worshippers visit in armoured buses - there are two sections of Israel's controversial wall, in grey concrete 30 feet high.

For much of the past five years, moreover, the Israeli army has occupied the roof of Sana's home. The soldiers at first stipulated that Mr and Mrs Dawabshe could have no visitors at all. Then they had to give advance notice of their guests, and provide details of their ID. When visitors pressed the front doorbell, it rang in an army post to alert troops to their arrival. "My neighbours, my parents used to come but they stopped except [at the Muslim religious festival of] Eid. It was hard for them."

For years, Sana has lived in a very dangerous place. The building has been routinely caught in the nightly crossfire between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers. The fact that Sana's flat is in the centre of the building gives some protection, but little comfort. When she and her husband asked to move somewhere quieter, the Israeli army opposed a plan, she says, because she and her family were, in Sana's words, "human shields" against Palestinian gunfire.

All of this is terrifying for her children. A shot once went through the bathroom window, forcing the family for a while to confine themselves to the living room and one bedroom. When Eyal was two, he woke at 4am to the trauma of a Palestinian grenade exploding in the street below in an ambush on Israeli soldiers, sending shrapnel cascading onto the family's balcony. On another occasion a soldier badly frightened Eyal by yelling and pointing a gun at him as he played in the hallway. "His face was pale," his mother recalls. "He was telling me, 'The soldier was going to shoot me.'"

Not surprisingly Eyal is a traumatised - and sometimes violent child - who wants to be a soldier. He enjoys martial games. "I like to make a Jeep and put a gun on it," he tells me. He frequently hits out at his parents and brother.

What adds to his psychological confusion is that the Israeli soldiers, who have now been moved from the roof of his home, were not routinely intimidating. Quite the contrary. Normally they were considerate to Sana and her family. "We were like neighbours, really," Eyal's mother recalls. "They are our enemy, but they were gentle with us. They played with the boys; they gave them sweets." During the last weeks of her second pregnancy, the soldiers arranged for a Jewish doctor to visit her daily. Eyal himself misses the soldiers. "I like them. They give me sweets," he says simply. "They aren't the same ones who shoot people."

No child in the Bethlehem area is unaffected by the psychological trauma of war - bedwetting, nightmares, reluctance to sleep alone, aggression and withdrawal, are all too common afflictions here. These are, after all, the children whose infancy has coincided with the intifada. But those, like Eyal, near the worst conflict points, are the most troubled.

"He is in a conflict," says Sana. "When I tell him you're behaving like soldiers he gets very angry. He says they are good people. He sees the brutality of soldiers on [Arab] TV and sometimes in the street. But then he sees them being gentle with us in the apartment."

In one sense, Sana is lucky. She is able to send her children to the Ahmad Bin Handal kindergarten where teachers have been trained in ways to cope with children in trauma. The project is funded by Education Action International, one of the charities being supported in The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year.

It is hard, in the happy atmosphere of the kindergarten, on the edge of the frequently conflict-ridden Aida refugee camp, to realise the size of the challenges faced by the staff. They are led by the nursery's head, Fatina Jundiffe. She is one of 120 nursery teachers a year who has gone through in-service training by the Early Childhood Resource Centre, an innovative and-entirely Palestinian NGO which has trained more than 3,500 nursery teachers since it was formed in 1985. Funded by Education Action, it is spearheading a transformation of pre-school education in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In one room, Rania, a social worker, is leading a boisterous but purposeful musical "parachute" game in which children revolve clutching a vast kaleidoscopic sheet of different colours. Ms Jundiffe talks the familiar language of a modern educationalist. The old approach, she says, was of language and maths, teaching to robotic ranks of children. "Now we have language and maths but we have art, drama play and movement play as well. And, instead of using the blackboard, we teach maths with games so the children enjoy it as well having a good learning experience."

But what makes the Ahmad Bin Handal kindergarten different is that its teachers have been equipped with essential psycho-social skills and techniques to provide immediate counselling for children like Eyal.

First and foremost, what it offers is what the rest of the world takes for granted as normal life. Just being able to go to school for a few hours a day gives children a sense of routine and normality. The teachers here have been trained to provide activities such as music, art and drama that create a safe and positive environment in the midst of the fighting and conflict in the world outside. And that builds the relationship with the children which makes the teachers the best-placed people to support children who are experiencing the trauma of conflict.

They are also trained to know when problems are beyond them. Where necessary, they refer children to specialists such as medical personnel and mental health groups. But most often, just providing a supportive environment can address the problems of children who live amid crisis.

The Early Childhood Resource Centre, which has been supported by Education Action for more than 10 years, is now the leading Palestinian organisation in the occupied West Bank for the training of kindergarten and pre-school teachers. It has single-handedly changed the pre-school sector in Palestine, especially pertinent given the lack of resources and investment in formal education systems.

Back at the Ahmad Bin Handal kindergarten, the social worker, Rania, acknowledges there are no easy answers to easing the problems of traumatised children. But besides referral, in the most serious cases, to a trained child psychologist, those with problems can be assigned special attention in small groups, which Rania supervises. "One thing we do is to try to get children to understand their strengths as well as their weaknesses - their brains, their hands and so on," she says. "We may get them to draw a picture and point out what they think are the strong and weak points."

The vital thing, according to Nabil Sublaban, the programme manager at the Early Childhood Resource Centre's East Jerusalem headquarters, is to "listen to the child as they express their fears". He also emphasises the importance of role play. "We try to get the child to act out what he or she likes doing, perhaps to play a leader. The important thing is to keep communication with the child."

It is a technique they use in training the teachers too. In the centre, a cheerful group of in-service kindergarten teachers are doing their own role-play amid much laughter.

They also lay great emphasis on the teachers working with parents, setting a goal for each teacher to visit the homes of five children five times year. One purpose of the home visits is to encourage parents to work with the children on reading, writing, art and even drama "to provide the means for parents to do such activities themselves". But it is also part of communicating to them that parents too have an important role in helping traumatised children. "It is important to listen to the child," Mr Sublaban says, "to let them express their fear."

For the traumatised children of Bethlehem it works. "It's excellent," says Sana. She adds: "It helps a lot."

What your donation will buy

* £25 pays for a teacher to attend a trauma counselling course to help children cope with the effects of war.

* £77 buys all the training materials and equipment needed to train a teacher in the West Bank for a year.

* £100 equips a kindergarten in the West Bank with essential play and learning materials.

* A Better Place: Donate now!

* A Better Place: Full appeal links.