By Roger Tagholm
Plans are underway to launch a scheme to promote reading among young Palestinian children in the West Bank early next year. Called Hayya Naqra! (Let’s read!), the program will seek to improve the education, care and development of Palestinian children. It takes its inspiration from two reading charities on either side of the Atlantic -– the US’s Reading is Fundamental and the UK’s Bookstart, the latter a scheme that provides free book packs for babies and very young children.
The initiative is part of the Early Childhood Development (ECD) program of US NGO American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA). ECD Director Sulieman Mleahat says: “Let’s Read is a multi-pronged initiative that seeks to promote reading and storytelling, but we also want to develop teacher and parental interest and skills in reading. The ECD program focuses on the 0-8 age group, which is considered the most important period in the human lifespan by the World Health Organization. We are training preschool teachers, renovating and equipping preschools, and supporting the Ministry of Education and other childhood organizations to better respond to the needs of Palestine’s youngest. We hope to launch Hayya Naqra early in 2012, initially in the West Bank, but eventually in Gaza. Funding is critical and our success and coverage will depend on what funds we can raise to reach as many children as possible.”
Mleahat is trying to make the activities of ordinary life, such as reading to primary school children, easier. Inevitably, of course, the political troubles of the region color everything. As a subject, the Israel-Palestine situation is almost impossible to talk about because of the huge sensitivities involved and the entrenched positions of both sides. It is easy to forget that to a four-year-old child, whether Israeli or Palestinian, the political machinations matter not a jot. They both like having stories read to them and they both deserve equal access to books.
Mleahat believes that the Israeli occupation makes ordinary life difficult for Palestinians and has hindered growth in the region -– in some cases, literally. “In Palestine, you have generations of people who have known nothing but life under occupation where every aspect of one’s life is affected by the actions of another group of people. This is debilitating for a society and has certainly stunted Palestinian development in every sense of the word. There are children who are physically stunted -– one in three children in some communities –- because they are poor and not receiving adequate nourishment. Society as a whole in every sphere — education, health, culture — has not been able to develop at a natural and healthy rate. You cannot leave one Palestinian population center without having to go through an Israeli military checkpoint. A network of Israeli settler colonies, settlement bypass roads and military checkpoints contrive to make life for ordinary Palestinians near impossible”.
But understandably, many Israelis will say that these security measures are necessary when their towns have suffered rocket attacks. And so the political debate rages on.
Mleahat criticizes the Palestinian authorities, too, although he accepts that, under occupation people’s priorities tend to be different. He says the preschool sector has not been given the priority it deserves and that there has been a lack of understanding at policy level of the importance of preschool care, education and development. He notes that currently, more than 70% of Palestinian children do not access any form of preschool provision. The situation is now changing, but he says more internal political will and international support is needed.
“When the Palestinian Authority took over responsibility for education in 1994 they embarked on addressing critical issues, such as making sure there were enough classrooms for children. While achievements have been impressive –- including the establishment of a new Palestinian curriculum -– education quality is really poor. Quality books and resources are very limited and libraries are practically non-existent. It is a very poor resource environment. Consequently, children have practically no access to good quality, stimulating materials. Their parents’ experiences of education are often negative and they will not have been taught to read, or to appreciate the importance of reading.”
Books are easily delivered into Palestine but are very expensive because of duty and shipment costs. Mleahat is particularly concerned about the type and quality of materials. “Although you have some prolific publishers in the Arab world, the sector as a whole is very weak. Writing, illustrating, producing and distributing books remain huge challenges across the Arab world. Good quality children’s books and non-curricula specific materials are always welcome in Palestine and ANERA would be pleased to receive contributions.”
Mleahat was born in 1970 in Ramadin, a tiny Bedouin community on the West Bank whose inhabitants are all registered refugees who lost their land in 1948. “They were forced out of what is now Kibbutz Lahav and the lucky ones eke out a living as day laborers in nearby Kibbutzim or Israeli new towns.”
At the age of 11 he was selected to join the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in the UK -– the school for disadvantaged children founded in 1959 on the principles of the Swiss educationalist Johann Pestalozzi. He studied International Development at UK universities and since 1994 has worked for a number of NGOs managing health and education projects for Palestinian refugees.
He returned to Palestine in 2010 and now lives in Ramallah with his wife, Rana, a journalist and writer, and their two children, Ali, 6, and Zein who is 3, both of whom are big Julia Donaldson and Horrid Henry fans. He enjoys being close to family again, but is saddened by so much of what he sees around him. “I feel that in the same way occupation does untold damage to the health and well-being of the occupied, I believe that it does quite a lot of harm to the occupier and oppressor. Israelis have internalized so much about Palestinians -– and to some extent the Palestinians have internalied so much about the Israelis. We’ll need a few generations to overcome ignorance, racism and hatred.”
To support ANERA and its education work, visit www.anera.org.