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Susan Atallah: A Land of Testing

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 12.05.2006:

Susan Atallah is teacher/supervisor at St Joseph School for Girls in Bethlehem, where she also lives.

“What kind of future are we going to look for since our grandparents, our parents, and ourselves have only grown up under occupation, violence, restrictions, and above all, lack of freedom?”

This was a question posed by my students at St Joseph School for Girls in an assignment that required talking to their grandparents and parents about the events that took place since 1936. Their conclusions were striking; the information they received brought them more frustration and depression, fear and insecurity, since they concluded that this country has been under different occupations and each one was worse than the other. Their conversations with their grandparents have brought them closer together and they have learned to appreciate the difficult life their grandparents have lived. They wanted to learn more about the history of Palestine and kept asking for books. So I went ahead and bought them a few good books to read in their free time. Another thing that was evident in their conclusions: their refusal of occupation, and their worry about their own future and the future of their own children which taught them to be more determined and more adamant to continue the fight against all that is unjust, in their own ways. Some said that by being more educated we can fight the Israeli occupation, while others thought that the Second Uprising can and will bring them their freedom they seek. A few students refrained from answering because they were confused about this whole thing of violence that has changed their lives in every possible way, and they are all worried about their safety and security, even in their own homes.

Home Sweet Home?

Some of my students are happy and thrilled to come to school because, as they say, they feel safer at school than at home. These kinds of discussions and remarks break the toughest hearts. When people go home, they think of it as haven where they feel rested and secure; a place where they enjoy some peace and quiet away from the troubles of life outside it. A home should be a place of refuge where family members meet and share their joy and their sadness. But for some of my students, whose houses where shelled and shot at, and even demolished, feel that school has become a safer place than their own homes. The meaning of home has changed. It has become a place of fear and insecurity. Nights have become a nightmare. Some parents were obliged to leave their homes, uproot their children from everything that is familiar and everything that they love, to rent a house that is located a little far away from the rockets and bombs. It’s the best thing the parents could think of in these circumstances, especially when they could afford it. But what about the ones who couldn’t move out? The ones who have to wake their children up almost every night and go down to the stairwell to seek shelter?

The effect of fear and insecurity in the classroom

Those students come to school, study, eat their snacks and do their homework. A lot of teachers have discovered that those students have changed; they have become absent-minded, they even cry in the middle of the classes, and they feel physically sick. The teachers’ roles and attitudes have changed towards the teaching process. They have to sway from the “traditional” way of their students’ educational development to include their emotional development under the circumstances. Teaching is a tough job under normal circumstances, and it has become more difficult to deal with traumatized children, let alone a whole classroom at that. What is more amazing is that students have changed their ways in dealing with school life, either by delaying their lunch till after they finish their homework and exams before it’s dark and shooting starts, or by freezing their activities and not working at all. Each individual student came up with different strategies to deal with the current situation. Even young children have developed in different ways: a little girl in the first grade (a six-year-old) wanted to become an Israeli, and when her parents were shocked and asked her why, she said because they have the power and the security and they don’t suffer like us, Palestinians. Another one who’s four years old in kindergarten skipped school for two months because she was worried that something might happen to her parents while she was away from home. When family members (like uncles, aunts and their spouses and children) gather in one house, the association is that they are running away from their own homes because it’s dangerous; the Israelis are going to shoot and kill them. A mother told me that when they hear the shooting, she turns the TV volume on high and the family starts clapping and singing to distract her children from the sound of bombing. As the time went by, the children discovered the trick and started switching to local TV channels to see what is happening around them which increased the fear they felt. Other children in elementary classes (grades 1 through 5) talk about the events that take place around them to each other during recess instead of playing games and enjoying their time.

“Are you scared and worried like us?”

For more than three months now, the students at Saint Joseph’s School for Girls in Bethlehem, come to school and excitedly share the events of the night before with their friends and classmates. Some laugh about what they did during the shooting and bombing (how they crawl on all four and hide) after the fact and some cry. What I noticed among my students in the 11th grade is that they have become more united and more empathic with each other. They ask us teachers whether or not we are afraid and worried just as they are. It’s very crucial to them, I noticed, that they wanted to know whether grownups feel the same way as they themselves do. They want to feel closer to their teachers, to show that their fears and insecurities are shared. We often assure them that we do feel worried and scared, but that we can’t surrender ourselves to fear, on the contrary, together as a team we have to do something about it and we will do something about it. One of the things that they feel would help out is telling their Dutch partners their side of the story. They realize that sitting and crying over spilled milk will not bring any results, but they have the power of fighting the occupation by telling the outside world what is really happening to them in particular, and the Palestinian people in general. And that would be powerful enough to do some little contribution to the Palestinian struggle. Their anger and frustration would be directed toward a positive channel, and they would feel good about themselves. This is one of the most important things that the project with the Dutch schools has brought to my Palestinian students.

Another project that has helped the students is expressing their feelings is writing diaries. Some of them even told me that when they couldn’t sleep at night, or when they have nightmares, they just sit and write them down. It made some students feel better, others found it difficult to write their anger and frustrations in English, so they are allowed to write them down in Arabic, their mother tongue.

A personal note

Every time I think about my country, Palestine, a few things pop out in my mind to explain why it is very difficult to live here, especially in Bethlehem.

“The Holy Land is a Land of Testing”. It is a land where your faith is tested, your patience is tested, your courage is tested, and your hope is tested. When friends come for a visit from abroad, they often ask us how we can actually live in this country where everything that we deal with doesn’t come very easily. You have to be a fighter to be able to get what you want or be who you want to be, especially women. This is one of the reasons why I instill courage and confidence in my teenage students to have a goal and go for it. They have to have a high self-esteem in themselves and stand up for their opinions without insulting anybody. They are learning to adapt themselves to the current situation, but not get used to it because it is not normal; people don’t live like us and our lives and circumstances are not normal, but we have to cope with them the best way we could. They can feel depressed and frustrated but they can’t give in to those feelings for a long time. It’s normal to feel afraid and it’s normal to feel angry, but those feelings have to be channeled towards a positive direction. They feel the injustice and the passivity of other countries and are confused by it; how can people be so insensitive towards the killing of innocent people, they always ask, but they know that some people and some countries are supporting us in different ways. They want to address the United Nations, but they also know that The United States is supporting Israel. They are thinking of ways to let the world know about their sufferings and imprisonment, and this was their assignment during the Christmas vacation, together with their diaries that they know will be sent to certain institutes to know about their situation.

Everybody hopes that this year would be better than the ones before it, and that peace will prevail. But still people are cautious about what they say and some are not optimistic. Yet, we have to keep our fingers crossed for a better future and our chins up high for our dignity and rights to be given back.”




Scenes from Palestinian Life During the Al-Aqsa Intifadah


Publication of the Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem, Palestine

April, 2001

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