Equity & Diversity

Schools Serve Generations of Palestinian Refugees

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 24, 2005 6 min read
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When students give their names for the first time at the Nuzha Preparatory Girls School No. 3 here in Jordan’s capital city, they also volunteer the names of towns and cities—such as Bethlehem, Jaffa, or Jerusalem—from which their families hail.

Those places are in what is now Israel or the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, controlled by Israel.

Most of the school’s 898 students, in fact, were born in Jordan; their families may have settled in this country as early as the late 1940s. But teachers and students at this school, the lion’s share of them of Palestinian origin, want to keep alive the memory of Palestine.

First grade pupils study the Arabic alphabet. They are among the 3,700 students in the refugee complex in Amman's Jabal Nuzha neighborhood.

Principal Majeda Kayyali is proud of the reports students have prepared that feature what she refers to as “cities in Palestine.” They include color photos, maps, information about the flora and fauna, and illustrations of traditional clothing.

Nuzha Preparatory Girls School No. 3 is one of 177 schools in Jordan run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, established by a U.N. resolution in 1949 to care for Palestinian refugees. The Jordanian UNRWA schools enroll 131,000 students, or about one in 10 of Jordan’s school-age children.

Located in Palestinian-refugee camps and areas of cities with large concentrations of such refugees, they serve students in grades 1-10. The Jabal Nuzha neighborhood of Amman is one of those areas.

The schools have educated several generations of Palestinians and are marking their 55th year of operation. “This is an occasion that is no cause for celebration,” said Matar Saqer, a spokesman for the U.N. agency at its field office in Amman.

UNRWA’s continued existence symbolizes the fact that a solution has not yet been found to address the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland. Mr. Saqer was born in a Palestinian-refugee camp in Jordan in 1951.

Like all refugee schools in Jordan, the Nuzha school for girls follows the national curriculum of the Ministry of Education. But Ms. Kayyali has added some extracurricular activities, such as drama and a human-rights project. Posters from the project adorn the schools’ walls. “We are a family without an identity. Don’t we have any rights?” says one in Arabic. Another, depicting a woman speaking from behind a lectern, says, “I have the right to express my opinion.”

National Curriculum

Classes are highly structured. In a 3rd grade Arabic class, four children hold up sentences written in Arabic, while the teacher singles out other students to read them. If a youngster reads the sentence without errors, the students give a little clap in unison.

In an English class, 8th graders are studying the past-perfect tense. “What has your sister been doing today?” recites one student. “She hasn’t been doing anything,” answers another.

Muslim students at the refugee schools spend three hours a week studying Islam, which is part of the national Jordanian curriculum.

In a religion class, teacher Hanan Darras leads 8th graders in a discussion about the meaning of prayer. Students stand to speak.

“Why does God tell us to pray?” says one girl. She answers her own question by saying, “To learn discipline and to monitor ourselves.”

“And prayer teaches us to be patient,” adds Ms. Darras.

Some 3,700 children are taught in two school buildings in the Jabal Nuzha neighborhood each day—in two shifts. When the shifts change around noon, the small concrete playground framed by school buildings becomes a sea of children in blue and green uniforms.

While UNRWA schools are intended to serve Palestinian-refugee children, they also accept some non-Palestinian students who live nearby. In turn, Jordan’s government schools do the same for some children with Palestinian-refugee status who live near government schools. All children of Palestinian origin are permitted to attend Jordan’s government schools and universities after their UNRWA education ends at 10th grade.

The U.N. agency also operates schools for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria and in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

When the Palestinian refugees first started flowing into Jordan, UNRWA provided emergency food, blankets, and shelter for them. Soon, it expanded its mission to include schools, health clinics, and other kinds of services.

‘Displaced Persons’

Since the first outflow of Palestinians from land that became Israel in 1948, the number of refugees has grown dramatically. When Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries received another influx. Today, 1.8 million refugees are registered with UNRWA in Jordan.

Some Palestinians here estimate that about 2.8 million, or 55 percent, of the 5.5 million people living in Jordan are of Palestinian descent. The government doesn’t release official numbers. Most Palestinians, including registered refugees, have Jordanian citizenship.

But some Palestinians weren’t granted citizenship when they fled from the Gaza Strip to Jordan after the 1967 war. They were holding Egyptian travel documents because Egypt administered that area from 1948 until then.

And yet another group of Palestinians who left the West Bank of the Jordan River after the 1967 war—estimated to number 240,000 at the time—weren’t ever given refugee status and are known as “displaced persons.” They are Jordanian citizens, however, because the West Bank had been part of Jordan. If the descendants of displaced persons live in refugee camps, UNRWA provides them with schooling. If they don’t, UNRWA admits them only on a case-by-case basis, depending on space and whether a government school is close by.

Currently, the agency enrolls 18,000 children with displaced-person status in Jordan.

Mr. Saqer, the U.N. spokesman, said that refugee schoolchildren do well academically. In quality-control tests given by the Ministry of Education this school year at 586 government, military, private, and UNRWA schools, students in the refugee schools on average scored higher than the mean score of all students tested in six different subjects. Fourth graders were tested in Arabic and math; 8th and 10th graders were tested in those subjects as well as Islamic education, English, science, and social studies.

They succeed in many cases despite large classes. The Arabic class of 3rd graders at the Nuzha school has 46 students; the 8th grade English and religion classes number 44.

Large Classes

UNRWA has long-term plans to reduce class sizes and cut back on the number of double shifts by building more schools. About 92 percent of the refugee schools in Jordan run double shifts, while only 9 percent of the government schools do.

“We need the Jordanian government to find plots of land for us,” said Mr. Saqer, “which is not very easy, especially in Amman, where the price of land has hit the ceiling.”

Still, class size has improved since the first refugee schools got off the ground.

Ismail Saleh, 69, a retired pharmacy assistant in Amman who attended refugee schools in the West Bank for six years in the late 1950s, while the area was Jordanian territory, recalls having 60 to 65 classmates. The schools provided pencils, textbooks, notebooks, erasers, clothing, and a daily ration of scrambled eggs and milk, he said.

Mr. Saleh also remembers that he had some good teachers, but that many students failed state-run high school graduation exams. He failed on the first try, but succeeded on a subsequent one. “Alhamdulillah,” he said instinctively in Arabic, though he had been speaking in English. “Praise God.”

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Note: Majeda Kayyali, Matar Saqer, and Ismail Saleh were interviewed in English. Yasmine Mousa provided Arabic-English interpretation for other sources.

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