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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Schools for Jordan's poorest struggle to survive

US cuts to the education budget for Palestinian refugees leave teachers struggling to cope

Schoolchildren stand at the gate of the UNRWA Al Jofeh elementary school in Jofeh district in Amman, Jordan. (Salah Malkawi for The National)
Schoolchildren stand at the gate of the UNRWA Al Jofeh elementary school in Jofeh district in Amman, Jordan. (Salah Malkawi for The National)

Jarrah al Hawamdeh was only a teenager when his leg was amputated in an ultimately successful battle against bone cancer.

“He was just like any other kid his age who enjoyed playing around and climbing,” said his mother Itaf. “When he lost his leg, I told him this is not the end, when one door closes another opens."

Jarrah, 23, heeded her advice and eight years later climbed to the Mount Everest base camp to try to raise $1 million (Dh4 million) for his cash-strapped former school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

“He wanted to support the school because he was worried that it would close down,” said his younger brother Diya’a, in Amman's southern neighbourhood of Jabal Al Jofeh where the family lives. “He wanted to make sure the neighborhood’s kids can continue studying there.”

In January, the US state department announced that it was committed to giving only $60 million to the Palestinian refugee group – down from the $360 million in 2017 for branches in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. The largest number of those refugees – more than two million – live in Jordan.

UNRWA oversees one of the largest school systems in the Middle East, with nearly 700 schools and the budget cuts have hit hard. In Jordan, there are 121,386 students studying in 171 UNRWA schools.

The schools are struggling to cope both to find room for them and to teach them effectively with some 42 students per classroom - and pupils being taught in two shifts every day.

In one school inside a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman, there are 10 toilets for 2,000 students who attend every day.

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At another school, a boy, 13, walked with his teacher into the principal's office - his shoes were so worn out, they were falling off. He was given a new pair donated by an NGO.

“Sometimes when we don’t have donations, we pitch-in money with the teachers and buy stuff for children who are in need,” said the principal. “Many come from poor backgrounds.”

A member of staff at UNRWA school in Amman said that budget cuts affected the pupils’ safety. Walls are patched up and the playground needs paving. “Some of the classroom doors need to be repaired...[and] we can hardly buy educational materials.”

Schoolchildren shop candys at the mini market of the UNRWA AL Jofeh elementary school in Jofeh district in Amman, Jordan. (Salah Malkawi for The National)
Schoolchildren shop at the mini market of the UNRWA Al Jofeh elementary school in Jofeh district in Amman, Jordan. (Salah Malkawi for The National)

School principals faced a teacher shortage because they could not pay for their wages and staff fear they will lose their jobs. While most Palestinian refugees in Jordan have full citizenship, many Gazans only have temporary residency.

“If I lose my job, I will be thrown in the street. I am not a citizen, and the only place I can work is at an UNRWA school,” said an assistant principal at a UN-run school in Amman.

His income of 700 JDs (Dh4,000) is barely enough to sustain his family of five and his mother.

Parents are also worried about the additional costs they might incur if schools were to close down.

Fawaz Shilbayeh, a supervisor at Marka camp near Amman and a former school principal, called on donor countries to increase the sums of money for UNRWA.

“Not only for political reasons, but also for social and economic reasons,” he said. “Those who suffer most will be girls since their parents will be reluctant to let them continue their school education. And this will encourage early marriages.”

Schoolchildren react inside the UNRWA AL Jofeh elementary school in Jofeh district in Amman, Jordan. (Salah Malkawi for The National)
Schoolchildren react inside the UNRWA AL Jofeh elementary school in Jofeh district in Amman, Jordan. (Salah Malkawi for The National)

Musa Al Sheikh, a Palestinian refugee who works at a mobile retail shop at one of the 13 camps in Jordan, said he would not be able to afford to send three of his five children to a private school if the camp’s schools close. A third of refugees living in the camps are living below the poverty line.

“Even if they go to a government school, I cannot afford to pay transportation for them and the nearest school is half an hour walk,” he said. “One of my daughters is 15 and I will marry her off."