How we educated Palestinian refugee students during Covid-19 lockdown

By Nesrin Al Hasan, Principal 

Truth be told, we are used to emergencies. I am the principal of a school in one of the largest Palestine refugee camps in Lebanon. The camp was set up just after 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war. Three generations of families have lived here – people who have known only this camp as their home.  After the Syrian war broke out, even more Palestinians moved in after having been forced to flee Syria.

Credit: Anthony Upton / Arete / UNESCO

Currently, 45% of Palestine refugees in Lebanon live in camps, in small, overcrowded houses of usually one or two concrete rooms. In some camp sectors, the alleys between shelters are so small that sunlight cannot be seen, and the coffins of the dead cannot pass. There were armed clashes a few years ago, so military checkpoints have been erected at every entrance. All of us, whether we have fled wars or lived in the camp all our lives, are accustomed to existing in a state of emergency, preoccupied with our safety and that of our families. 

When COVID-19 hit, it was a different kind of threat, an unseen enemy. Despite this, since we have always been on constant alert, we felt prepared. The school has closed a number of times due to clashes and other emergencies, so we already had a system in place that would allow children to study from home. This is the system on which we fell back when the school was forced to close in February 2020 in order to contain the spread of the pandemic. 

From the first day of school closure, we were able to communicate to parents through the WhatsApp groups we had created to send our frequent security updates. UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) developed a shortened version of the curriculum to include only the core subjects, such as Arabic, English, Science and Mathematics. All the teachers and school staff received training on online communication tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. 15 days after the closure of the school, we were ready for the first online classes. I heard that in some countries in Europe, it took months for the schools to prepare for online lessons. It helps that we are experts in emergency preparedness, living under bullets. We can move swiftly.

We also had counsellors in place – thanks to the support of the European Union’s Madad Fund and the Belgium Government’s Education in Emergencies (EIE) for Palestine Refugee Children project – who provided psychosocial support to the most vulnerable children and families. We didn’t know how long the school closure would last, so their intervention was critical. Beyond the mental health aspect, parents and children needed to know how to deal with the issues that inevitably arose during lockdown. For example, a typical problem affecting many families was a lack of devices, with many homes having to share one smartphone among six people or more. Our counsellors helped the parents to schedule lessons, so that children did not miss out on their learning. Our teachers were therefore able to focus on teaching.

Despite having had systems in place and having moved fast, it has not been easy. The reality is that the vast majority of people in the camp are living beneath the poverty line. Many families rely on the financial support of UNRWA to make ends meet. The Lebanese government prevents Palestine refugees from exercising the right to work in more than 50 professions.  This is also the case for many teachers – we are refugees teaching refugees. 

Beside the lack of devices, the electricity is sporadic. Many homes are dark for a large part of the day, and the Wi-Fi is unreliable. For those children who did not have access to any laptops or smartphones, UNRWA developed self-learning printed materials that were handed to them on a weekly basis and collected by teachers to grade and provide feedback. We also had to be flexible. Teachers were shared between classes and even between schools so that children didn’t miss out on any lessons. We devised a testing system that assessed students based on their online participation and the quality of the work they handed in.

Still, we could not reach all children. We estimate that about 30% of students did not participate at all in learning. Part of the problem is the constant worry about the lack of funds and threats of budget cuts. According to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, refugee education remains underfunded with just an estimated US$800 million spent in 2016. Investment in refugee education needs to increase tenfold to meet the needs of refugee students, so that they are able to attend and complete school and receive quality education that will equip them for the next stage of their lives.

This is money well spent. Educating refugees will help lift them out of poverty, so that they are able to make a positive contribution to the countries that host them. In fact, I myself am an UNRWA graduate, became an UNRWA employee, and have been trying to give back to my community by walking the extra mile to deliver quality education for my students. 

The rate of student participation increased when we received funding from donors who invested in emergency education. This came as a huge relief, as we were able to provide additional tablets to children and also help pay for Wi-Fi. Using tablets has promoted active participation by 10-15% in my school. The US government had cut all funding in 2018, and this was followed by an unprecedented financial crisis for Palestine refugees. When the funding was resumed this year, relief and gratitude was felt among UNRWA’s staff, since we know that services can be delivered to Palestine refugees without interruption, while we employees no longer have to live in constant fear of not being paid next month. A weight has been lifted off our shoulders.

My school reopened its doors this month to all 438 students. It has been incredible to welcome them back after over a year of remote learning. However, 20 disadvantaged children who did not have access to remote learning are reluctant to come back to school. They feel left out and fear they will be unable catch up with their fellow students. We are now pulling out all the stops  to convince them to return to school by setting up a catch-up program just for them. 

COVID-19 has severely disrupted school systems, and there is a danger that this will lead to a lost generation. I estimate that it will take two years to help the students who have fallen behind to catch up. Refugee children are resilient, because they have survived conflict and adversity. With the proper investment and support, we can ensure that their education is not damaged further.

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