SIDON, Lebanon: The suspension of classes at UNRWA schools after each round of violence holds up the education of thousands of Palestinian students in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. In several cases, students themselves become the unintended victims of sporadic shootings that take place between Fatah and Fatah al-Islam fighters.
When tensions escalate to gunfire in the camp, where 80,000 refugees live, it is not uncommon to see schoolchildren playing on the streets, away from violent areas, making the most of their vacation from class.
For some, the brief clashes present an opportunity to earn pocket money, with many children collecting bullet casings to sell after the exchange of gunfire subsides.
“Every time a shooting takes place I hide in the bathroom because it is safe,” said Fatima Kayid, 10. “Everyone should listen to us, we should live in peace. We can’t study properly because of the clashes.”
“My home is near the main market and I hear all the shootings and grenades exploding. [During the recent clashes last week] we didn’t go to school for days; every day we heard that someone is dead,” said Fatima’s friend Hayat.
Aziza Khalil, who was displaced along with her family from the Syrian-Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, said “seven months ago we escaped war in my country to live in safety, but I still hear shootings and explosions [from the clashes here].”
Following recent clashes, a rally was held by concerned residents in the camp to protest the ongoing violence. Several hundred residents marched toward the area where the clashes took place, demanding a cease-fire.
“I count the shots during the fighting. This helps me later when I gather the bullet casings to sell them for a few dollars,” said Mohammad Hleihil, who took part in the protest.
“But the clashes should stop, we have to live in peace and live our lives like other children.”
Occasionally, Mahmoud Hujeir competes with Mohammad to gather casings. “We were standing behind a crate when the clashes [took place] and now it is riddled with bullets.
“There is always a risk we will become victims ... I don’t want to die. I want to study, play and sing.”
Omar Karroum’s legs were incapacitated after the clashes. “All I was doing was playing in our neighborhood and now I can’t walk for months,” he said.
A member of the Ain al-Hilweh Popular Committees, Fouad Othman, said: “The education level in the UNRWA schools has deteriorated considerably in the past few years because of ... the circumstances.”
“Sixty percent of students are failing [their examinations] and this will contribute to making our future generations ignorant,” he said.
He said that at one time 90 percent of UNRWA students in middle and secondary schools would pass their official examinations.
“We need quick and serious measures to mend the security situation in the camp and improve the education services in UNRWA schools,” he added.
The deteriorating security situation partly explains the students’ poor academic performance, Othman said.
“We go to school but we are afraid all the time and whenever we hear a gunshot we think there is a clash and want to run back to our homes,” said Zahra Hijazi, a fifth grade student who attends one of the UNRWA schools.
“Whenever they clash we are forced out of school, like last week, and this is unfair because we don’t feel that we are secure and we can’t concentrate on our studies.”
“We hope the officials will secure stability and peace because we want to learn ... Education is a weapon which serves our cause and that’s why there are people who don’t want us to learn. But we insist on learning.”
Issam Halabi, the general director of the League of Palestinians, said: “The regular clashes in Ain al-Hilweh are detrimental to the residents of the camp, especially for the children.”
“The security situation also influences the education system because schools are forced to shut their doors during violent episodes, forcing children to delay their education. The children also suffer from psychological instabilities as a result,” he said.
“When clashes take place while the students are at school, this creates fear among the students and their parents, who risk their lives to save their children and bring them back home,” he added.
“The security situation is the reason behind the deteriorating education system. Schools close down following the clashes and some of the teachers who reside outside are too fearful [to travel to the camp] to teach their classes. We can’t complete the school curriculum in these circumstances.”