Lebanon vigil for exchange teacher

21st July 2006 at 01:00
An Edinburgh teacher was this week waiting anxiously to hear whether pupils she worked with in Lebanon and their teachers are safe, following the attack on the country by Israel.

Hilary Ballantine, a maths teacher at St Margaret's School in Edinburgh, was one of the first teachers to visit Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon at the end of May under an initiative by the Education Action charity.

As The TES Scotland went to press, news was coming through of attacks on a camp south of Beirut, which left at least 11 children dead. Meanwhile, Mrs Ballantine was waiting for emails from a maths colleague at the school she visited and the headteacher.

"What makes me so upset is that, when I visited the camps only weeks ago, there was so much hope for the future among the children," Mrs Ballantine said. "They were worried about exams and what jobs they would do, just like the young people I teach back home. Now I can't imagine what they are going through."

The charity's programme is in jeopardy following the outbreak of hostilities and the subsequent evacuation of foreign nationals from Lebanon. Education Action has only been able to contact its partner organisations in Lebanon by text messaging.

The programme is moving into its second year and two Scottish teachers had been given the go-ahead to start planning for a visit next February.

However, Education Action has been forced to put the project on hold.

"We are watching the situation and are in constant contact with our partners in Lebanon," Sally Hewlett, the charity's schools officer and organiser of exchange trips, said.

The idea is to allow teachers first-hand experience of areas affected by conflict. The charity, formed in 1923, has been running its Insight programme since 2002, taking teachers to Sudan and Uganda.

Earlier this year, it launched its inaugural links with Lebanon, an area blighted by conflict since the creation of Israel in 1948. Currently 400,000 Palestinian refugees, including 45,000 children, are living in camps across the border in Lebanon. There are just five secondary schools spread across the 12 official camps.

"I got back from Tunisia a week ago, and since then I have been glued to the television news constantly," Mrs Ballantine said. "I haven't been able to get in touch with the teachers I met while I was there and I'm so worried.

"I know people in the south, where I visited, have been told to evacuate but how can these people in the camps get out?

"They have no access to cars or buses. They live in such small, cramped spaces, 12,000 in an area the size of a cricket pitch. If a mortar attack is aimed at them, so many people, including children, could be hurt or killed."

Association Najdeh, which runs educational programmes for women and children in the camps, has closed all of its 26 centres for the foreseeable future, Sulieman Mleahat, Education Action's Middle East project manager, said.

The association had planned a summer of activities for secondary-age children. However, one of the first activities involved a field trip to Qasmieh, an area targeted by Israel in the opening days of hostilities. The bridge there was hit on the day of the trip, but all the children were reported to have returned unharmed.

A decision was then made to halt all further activities.

After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it targeted many of the camps, which it claimed sheltered Palestinian terrorists. Thousands were killed.

Following the Israeli withdrawal, internecine battles continued as the 1980s descended into bloody civil war, causing further destabilisation and more deaths. Since the mid-1990s, the country has been rebuilding itself.

"It seemed when I was there that people had more hope for the future than they had had at any point in their turbulent past," Mrs Ballantine said.

"It is so tragic that this has happened now."

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