Memories linger of abuse in UNRWA schools

Hamid El-Darwich | 20-07-2016

This is my fourth year at Lebanese American University in Byblos, and it has taught me many new skills. Each semester, as part of a work-aid program, I was given the opportunity to choose the department where I was posted. For example, I worked in Riyad Nassar Library, where I learned how to research obscure facts; the Civil Engineering Laboratory, where I was taught how to test construction materials for clients; and the Information Technology office, where I learned to fix digital devices.

In my college, students’ intellectual abilities matter more than their backgrounds. The students and faculty respect me, and I have never felt discriminated against due to the fact that I am Palestinian and Muslim.

A few weeks ago, while I was lying in bed, I started thinking about how much my life has changed. I have many happy memories, but the ones that had a negative impact, and with which I struggled for many years, all had one thing in common: they took place in an UNRWA school.

This teacher, "Mr. Shtewi," was how most should be, says Hamid: respectful. 

I rarely exaggerate; when I use extreme terms, I mean them literally. And in my experience, elementary UNRWA schools are destructive environments for children, the site of both physical and emotional humiliation. To be fair, I tried to obtain permission to interview current students and teachers from UNRWA schools. However, I received no response, and without it no staff or teachers would talk.  “I am sorry; I am an employee for UNRWA, and I can’t say anything without their permission” was the standard response.

I don’t want to generalize and say “all teachers at UNRWA schools are bad,” but I also know I’m not the only one who suffered at the hands of cruel teachers, and I believe it is important to expose these practices to public debate.  Here are five experiences that scarred me for life:

Experience 1

I was in second grade at an UNRWA school in southern Lebanon, taking an Arabic session and chatting in a low voice with my friend. Suddenly, my teacher threw a heavy, wooden blackboard eraser at my face from just three meters (10 feet) away. I reacted quickly to avoid it, but it hit my forehead anyway. It hurt, but what stung even more was the laughter of the other students.

Experience 2

Later that year, the same teacher asked one day, “Who is the strongest one in this class?” The students pointed at me, saying “Hamid.” They assumed I was the strongest because I used to beat them in arm-wrestling. He smiled and asked me to come near him, then said, “Massage my shoulder and neck, son.” I kept massaging his shoulder for almost 15 minutes. He seemed to like it, so he ordered all of the students to stand in line to massage him one at a time, saying, “You can sit if you massage me well.”

Experience 3

In grade seven, I was in another UNRWA school. In French class one day, I stood to fetch my books from my carrying bag. The teacher entered and saw me standing, then ordered me to stand near the wall until he decided what to do with me. He asked, “Why were you standing and not sitting?” But before I was able to answer the question, he hit the nape of my neck with his hand, forcing me to stumble. I thought he was done, so I moved slowly to go back to my seat. However, he barked, “Hey, we are not done” and proceeded to verbally humiliate me—all because I was standing when he entered class.

Experience 4

In grade eight, my classmate Nader frequently annoyed my Arabic teacher with his talking. Unable to control him herself, she called upon our math teacher for help. Instead of giving Nader a warning or calling his mother, the teacher ran angrily into class, wielding a one-meter wooden stick. He hit Nader until the boy bled and whimpered, “Teacher, teacher! Please stop, please!”

Experience 5

That same year, he same teacher collected some family information for school records during math session. I annoyed him by joking with my friends and he suddenly walked toward me, lifted me by my hair and literally threw me out of the room, yelling, “Go tell your father to teach you how to be polite.”

I don’t hate these teachers, but I want UNRWA to understand the impact poorly trained instructors have on the children in their care. While some say UNRWA schools have changed, I know there are still a lot of bad teachers (as well as many other good ones, especially in high school). I went to Tyre last week and a random sampling of UNRWA secondary students confirmed they are still abused. For example, I met a 10-year-old girl who informed me that the same teacher who had hit me with an eraser is teaching her. She told me that “he hits me with a broom.”

These experiences may seem trivial in the long run. But one’s school years are formative ones, and teachers are powerful authority figures. Even now, when I am in college, I sometimes hesitate to ask or answer questions because I fear professors’ reactions. I know from my friends that this is true for many UNRWA students. Even outside the classroom, it can be difficult to make friends because they are insecure. Our experiences in UNRWA schools have ingrained the value of obedience over critical thinking. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to be exposed to a different type of learning. But what about those who do not? 

Mentor: Pam Bailey
Posted July 19, 2016


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