by Lamis AIami
Nearly three-quarters of a million Palestinians became refugees in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. In response to their plight, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was created, in 1949, by the United Nations General Assembly. Despite repeated international efforts and numerous UN resolutions in the years since, the refugee problem has gone unresolved, so that, while UNRWA's mission was initially intended to be brief, its three-year mandate has been consecutively renewed. At present, the Agency offers services to the fourth generation of Palestine refugees. But the services are of a different kind. The need for large-scale relief has gradually diminished and UNRWA now provides education to over 400,000 people, health services to over a million and a half, and welfare services to the 18,437 most needy. It has developed from a pure relief organization to a semi-governmental institution running important, continuing programs.
Providing education for Palestine refugees means operating a program extending over Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and comparable with a national system of education in size, scope and complexity.
General Background on the UNRWA Education Program
The overall aim of the UNRWA Department of Education is to provide, within the framework of the curricula prescribed by the host countries, general education, in-service teacher education, vocational and technical education, limited higher education opportunities and university scholarships for Palestine refugee children and young men and women, in accordance with their basic educational needs, identity and cultural heritage. The department also aims to maintain its continuous improvement at all levels in the system to meet recognized international standards.
At present UNRWA operates 643 elementary and preparatory schools in the five geographical areas, 43 percent of which are located outside camps in towns and villages where Palestine refugees are concentrated. At the beginning of the 1995-1996 school year, the total number of Palestine refugee children enrolled in UNRWA schools amounted to 421,854 pupils served by 13,073 educational staff. Vocational, technical and pre-service teacher education is provided in one non-residential and seven residential training colleges with a total enrollment of 5,449 students and 541 instructors. Upon the request of Palestinian and Jordanian authorities, and in order to improve the qualifications of teachers and to help them meet the new teacher requirements, the Agency established, effective September 1993, the four-year Educational Science Politics at the three training colleges in Jordan and the West Bank, with a capacity of 900 training places. Additionally, the Institute of Education provides in-service training courses for about 750 education staff members through the Education Development Centers in the five fields of operation. At the university level, 959 students benefited from the Agency's university scholarship program in 1995-1996.
The education program has long been the largest item in UNRWA's annual budgets, reaching US $210 million, or 48 percent of the total, in 1995.
Mission Statement of the Education Program
The primary mission of UNRWA schools and training centers (colleges) as formulated in 1992, is to prepare Palestinian children and youth as individuals living in their community:
First, to fully participate as democratic citizens of the Palestinian, host country, Arab, and world communities, with the competency to contribute their full intellectual and personal potential to meeting the challenges and uncertainties of the rapidly changing world of the 21st century.
Second, to fully participate as democratic citizens, imbued with a sense of their Palestinian identity and cultural heritage, and sensitive to their own rights and needs, while maintaining a sense of responsibility to balance their rights and needs with those of their family, community and multicultural and global society, in an effort to improve the quality of life for all. Third, to fully participate as citizens who are value-oriented, career¬-directed, competent in communication and problem-solving skills; skillful in creative and critical thinking.
UNRWA schools have always conformed to the official education system of the host countries [Lebanon, Syria, Jordan (includes West Bank), and Egypt for the Gaza Strip]. Thus the department is required to operate four allied but different systems of education, with four different curricula and four different sets of textbooks. While this arrangement has the advantage of permitting refugee children in UNRWA schools to take local state examinations, and thereby qualify for higher education on terms of educational equality with the local school population, it has the disadvantage of restricting independent radical changes in the level, quality, quantity and the spread of content. The main contribution of the UNRWA Department of Education, therefore, remains in the realm of curriculum enrichment.
School accommodation has always presented a problem for UNRWA, and although its modem schools are a far cry from the original tents, it still cannot be claimed that conditions are universally satisfactory. Owing to the shortage of funds and available building land, many UNRWA schools use rented premises. The education program continues to be handicapped by overcrowding, and examples of 50 pupils to a class still exist. Double-shifting is to be found in 66 percent of Agency schools.
The textbooks used in UNRWA schools are those prescribed by host governments. In order to ensure compatibility with UN principles, books have been vetted, since 1969, by the Director-General of UNESCO before procurement. In the West Bank and Gaza and before the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) assumed responsibility for Education, books were subject to a special import permit from the Israeli authorities. These permits were not automatically granted and a great number were declared forbidden imports, despite previous approval by UNESCO.
By the end of the 1995-1998 planning period, enrollment in UNRWA elementary, preparatory and secondary schools will exceed half a million pupils at current population growth rates. The efforts of the general education program will be directed at achieving access to and completion of basic school education by all eligible school-age Palestine refugee children (6-16 years of age), including handicapped children, wherever possible.
In-Service Teacher Training
The early emphasis was on general training for new and inexperienced teachers. In 1964, the UNRWA-UNESCO Institute of Education was established to supplement the Agency's pre-service teacher education programs offered at its teachers training colleges. A team of international and local specialists was recruited to carry out the overall responsibility for the proper organization and orientation of the teaching and learning of subjects prescribed in the curricula of schools and teachers training colleges. In 1974, the Education Development Centers (EDC) were established in the areas of operation in an effort to achieve qualitative improvements in the education services through innovations and better utilization of available resources.
The primary objective of UNRWA institutions responsible for in-service and pre-service training of educators is to plan, motivate, organize, coordinate, monitor and evaluate training programs which efficiently and effectively use the Agency's limited resources:
• To continuously enrich their clients' curricula and instructional materials and their own academic and professional backgrounds to teach it;
• To continuously improve teaching methods, strategies and techniques: to give attention to differences in learning styles of students, and to promote life-long learning and personal growth, to build self-discipline and to develop sustaining values, attitudes, knowledge and skills - the most important of which is how to think and how to learn;
• To continuously improve personal and professional competencies of teachers, instructors and key educators through staff development programs; and
• To continuously improve, as a support system, the partnership between schools and training centers and parents and the community.
Vocational and Technical Education
The aim of the Vocational and Technical Education Program is to provide Palestinian refugee students with marketable skills and techniques in a number of trades and technical occupations, which lead to their employment. Since its first Vocational Training Center (VTC) was founded in Qalandia (West Bank) in 1953, UNRWA has instituted seven more such centers - one in the Gaza Strip, two in Jordan, one in Syria, one in Lebanon and two in the West Bank. Three centers are combined vocational and teachers training centers (colleges).
When the Qalandia VTC was established in 1953, there were 127 trainees enrolled in eight courses. Now, the Agency's eight vocational training centers offer 42 different trade and technical courses for 4,352 trainees. Since 1955 when UNRWA produced its first 165 graduates, more than 40,000 refugees have already graduated from the VTC courses. Vocational courses are of two types: trade courses (post-preparatory level) and semi-professional courses (post-secondary level). Trade courses include mechanical/metal trades, electrical/ electronic trades, building / construction trades and vocational courses for women. Semi-professional courses include technicians courses, paramedical courses and commercial courses.
An essential element in UNRWA's services to refugees throughout the 1950s was the scheme to assist work-seekers to locate appropriate job opportunities. The Agency maintained close contact with governments and other major employers in the Middle East and collated the resulting information on vacancies and job prospects, providing thus a regular and free source which helped thousands to obtain employment. From 1963, the Placement Service was transferred to UNRWA's Department of Education where it concentrated on job location for graduates of the Agency's own VTC. Despite the existence of a ready market for the available skills, location of opportunities on behalf of the work-seekers continues to be a valuable service, much in demand by the graduates.
The education program faced and will continue to face major demographic, socioeconomic and technological challenges that require continued efforts to meet the present and future needs of the Palestine refugees. Among these are:
• Anticipated increases in the refugee school population, resulting from the natural growth of about 5.3 percent per year, and the movement of students of returning families to Gaza and the West Bank that necessitate additional teaching staff and school facilities;
• Rapid changes in employment opportunities for qualified teachers, skilled workers and technicians in local and external labor markets;
• Effects of the continued disruption of schooling in the West Bank and Gaza and the consequences on the quality of learning and student achievements;
• Expected increase in the number of handicapped refugee children seeking access to Agency schools; and
• Need for innovation to improve teaching-learning and monitoring¬evaluation methods in the Agency school, vocational and technical education systems.
The devotion of the Palestine people to academic education is a remarkable and national characteristic which has enriched the lives of the homeless group of refugees throughout their three or four decades of displacement. Today, it is a universally accepted truism that education is the right of all human beings; in large areas of the world, however, it remains a right that must be enforced by law. In the case of the Palestine refugees the reverse is true. There is no legal obligation for any refugee to enter school and yet, since the very earliest days, the schools provided by UNRWA have been over-filled, despite acute problems of accommodation, equipment, and distance. For the people of Palestine, education is more than a practical necessity; it is an integral part of life, a lodge of pride for a people who possess little else. In the course of the past 45 years, hundreds of thousands of Palestine refugee children have received education in UNRWA institutions, and this has helped them become self-supporting. Less obvious, but perhaps equally important, is the fact that the educational system has significantly contributed to the preservation of the cultural identity of a displaced and dispersed people.