Learning in the war zone

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Truth and reconciliation are the key lessons in one Jerusalem school. Chris Wright tells of a struggle to hold the middle ground in the Middle East.

DURING the past month students at the Anglican Inter- national School, Jerusalem, have been going to school in a war zone, living history first-hand. They have watched the unfolding of the conflict on their doorsteps, witnessing events no young person should have to see.

The school is situated at the heart of the city. It serves students aged three to 19 years. Thirty-five nationalities are represented at the school which caters mainly for children of United Nations personnel, diplomatic corps, foreign journalists and parents involved in Christian organisations and other non-profit work that assist the local population.

About 15 per cent is Arab - both Muslim and Christian Palestinians - and 4 per cent Jewish. Israelis and Arabs learn together, side by side.

Many students live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and cross military checkpoints each day on their way to and from school. I am amazed by our students' gentle determination to carry on.

One of our student's diaries read: "It's night time, the electricity has gone out, candles light up the house as if it's Christmas - but it's not.

"I look outside, darkness everywhere. I'm scared. For the past hour I've heard nothing but the non-stop sound of gunfire that seems to last a lifetime, the constant drone of helicopters overhead and ambulances driving back and forth by my house.

"The anxiety I feel is inexpressible - anxiety about this country, my family or my friends and their safety on both sides of this confrontation, and whether or not I'll see them tomorrow. I feel helpless, but I have hope." .

As a Christian international school we believe that one of the most important things we can teach our students is how to live together in peace.

The Christian value of reconciliation is fundamental to our approach in bringing together students of all faiths who may need to resolve conflicting values and loyalties to families, friends and communities in a seemingly endless violent environment.

During this time we are creating opportunities for students to speak about their experiences, to share their opinions and learn how to be world citizens able to love people who hold opposing opinions. This is one of the hardest yet most important lessons they will ever need to learn. As one 11-year-old student wrote: Seeing all these things has given me many different feelings. I feel very sad toward the different people, for those who are trying to gain justice, and those who are mourning children, husbands, wives, and friends.

"One of our school bookmarks says, 'Where the World Goes to School' - which is true. The world does go to school here. It is so amazing that all these people - American, Palestinian, Finnish, Norwegian, Israeli and other nationalities - learn together side by side. It is a wonder how we are going through all this, and yet we can come to school to work and study together."

Liran Koren, a 17-year-old Jewish Israeli, who attended Israeli schools until this year, says that attending school with Arab students has given him a better understanding of "their side". "Everything is new to me now. I have many Arab friends. I never understood their side before." Attending the school has also given him a chance to explain the Israeli perspective to others.

Each morning before school starts the student council has arranged for a time of prayer and reflection, where students of all faiths can come and be quiet and offer up their feelings and the situation to God. Through assemblies, students' attention is turned to how each of the three religions represented in this city aspires to peace and to love. It's a painful experience for our students to observe the actions of their leaders and adult role models and ask why it is so difficult to put these beliefs into practice. Each of our scriptures encourages us to curb anger, love our neighbour and pursue peace and justice.

Schools have to be more than an arena for voicing well-rehearsed opinions. We have built into the curriculum, in the personal and social development classes, a structured way for students to learn how to distinguish fact from fiction and to analyse the diametrically-opposed viewpoints expressed all around them.

The ICT classes begin by students going online to read newspapers from home countries to help them add another perspective.

Education is so much broader than the structured curriculum. As educationists we have a responsibility to provide models of how people can manage and resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. We have a responsibility to ensure that the violent legacies of the 20th century are not carried over into the 21st. Our students are our future.

Chris Wright is principal of the Anglican International School, Jerusalem

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