Witness to hardships of war-torn communities

21st July 2006 at 01:00
Edinburgh maths teacher Hilary Ballantine tells Su Clark about her recent visit to schools in the Arab refugee camps in Lebanon and the fears she now has for everyone there

Since her return from holiday in Tunisia, maths teacher Hilary Ballantine has been glued to the television news or her computer. Her relaxed mood has been shattered by the news that Israel is bombing Lebanon, which she had visited just five weeks before.

As Mrs Ballantine watched the crisis unfold on television she became more and more frantic, unable to phone or receive or send emails to her new friends in that country. Now children have been killed in the camps where she spent a week teaching and exploring educational provision.

At the end of May, Mrs Ballantine went with seven other British teachers to Lebanon with Education Action, a charity that focuses on improving education for children in areas blighted by conflict.

The group visited many of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps, created in 1948 to house those people displaced by the creation of Israel and the conflict that followed. Towards the end of the week they visited the Burj el-Barajneh camp in Beirut.

Even after five days in the country, Burj el-Barajneh was a shock.

Crumbling, bullet-riddled buildings reached up precariously. Strung between were sagging electricity wires and water pipes, criss-crossing crowded alleys. Around them, heaps of rubble and twisted metal proved gravity cannot be defied indefinitely. Rubbish was piled high and children played between open sewers.

There was no question; this was the worst the teachers had seen during their fact-finding mission on education in Lebanon, and that was before the current conflict.

"These people live under horrendous conditions in these camps, but particularly Burj el-Barajneh," says Mrs Ballantine, an energetic, determined maths teacher from St Margaret's school in Edinburgh. She is not evangelical, but it is obvious she was deeply moved by what she saw.

"They are massively overcrowded," she says, "with 12,000 people living in an area the size of a cricket pitch. Lebanese containment policy means no new building is allowed, so the people have expanded upwards, putting new floors on the shaky buildings," she explains.

"They have no access to Lebanese public services, such as health or education. Schooling is provided by charities and they are so overstretched they have to deliver teaching in shifts. There are just five secondary schools across the 12 camps."

As the bombs fall, news has come through that all the charitable operations supported by Education Action have been closed down indefinitely and the staff are huddling in shelters for safety. This means no schooling for the 45,000 children who live there.

Education Action takes teachers to Uganda, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Lebanon to see first-hand what life and education is like for those growing up in areas affected by conflict.

"It is a humanitarian catastrophe and it has been going on for nearly 50 years," Mrs Ballantine says. "But what struck me when I was there was the hope that the young people had. Hope for the future. I can't imagine what they must be feeling now."

Burj el-Barajneh is the worst example of what Lebanon's policy on Palestinian refugees has meant. There are a registered 4.3 million Palestinians in Egypt Syria, Jordan and Lebanon: it is the largest number of displaced peoples, forced from their own country, in the world. Of those, 400,000 live in 12 official camps, and some unofficial camps, spread down the coast of Lebanon. They account for 10 per cent of the population.

There they have faced the tragic consequences of Lebanon's refusal to assimilate them. They are not allowed to own land; they are barred from more than 70 professions, such as medicine or law; their children cannot attend Lebanese public schools; they cannot use the hospitals.

Unemployment among Palestinians runs at 40 to 60 per cent for men and at 92 per cent for women. Illiteracy is high, especially among women, and education is not considered a priority.

"The children here are good but the families don't take care of them,"

Hicham Khachan, a maths teacher in the Shatila camp in Beirut told Mrs Ballantine. "This affects their education. Parents aren't interested in education. They don't come to school when asked."

Since the hostilities broke out, Mrs Ballantine has tried to contact Mr Khachan. She has had no replies.

The refugees, and the rest of Lebanon, were only just raising themselves up after years of bloody conflict. Education has not been a priority over the past 60 years. Since 1948 there has been conflict with Israel, leading to the 1982 Israeli invasion. After Israel withdrew, to a security zone in the south in 1985, the civil war worsened. Only in the 1990s did the country begin to recover.

Sulieman Mleahat, Education Action's Middle East programme manager, says:

"I first visited in 1996. It was after decades of this beautiful country being gutted by war, and since then I have seen it blossom. Huge progress had been made and people had hopes for the future. It is so upsetting to see that destroyed overnight."

Education for the majority of Palestinians, who cannot afford the private schools, is provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, set up temporarily in 1949. Since then it has had its mandate repeatedly renewed. It runs 74 elementary and five secondary schools in the camps, for more than 45,000 pupils.

Education Action supports this work by providing for those areas not covered by UNRWA, backing groups such as Association Najdeh and the Arab Resource Collective, which run early years groups, adult literacy classes and vocational training in the professions allowed, such as hairdressing.

The charity also focuses heavily on teacher training and professional development, which is where the Insight programme fits. In return for a commitment to raise money, UK teachers are taken to these areas to offer some of their professional expertise. All they have to do in return is commit to raising an agreed sum.

"This was the first EA Insights trip to the camps in Lebanon and I hope it won't be the last," says Mrs Ballantine. "We were able to offer some ways to improve provision."

One was to reconsider the policy on failing students.

"Students are automatically moved up from grade one to two even if they have failed, while there is a policy in the older years that only 15 per cent can fail.

"It means there are huge variations of ability in the classes, making it even more difficult to teach, and those who are struggling don't get the help they need," explains Mrs Ballantine.

The benefits of the visits are not just one way. The trip is also about the professional development of the visiting teacher. The highlight for Mrs Ballantine was taking a maths class within a girls' school. She was given a class of 39 in grade 9 (girls aged 15 and 16).

"It was good CPD for me as I had to sit down and plan the lesson with the teacher and that meant more than just working out what and how to deliver it," she says. "I had to learn about the different language used, which is good because it makes you think about what you do and how you deliver it.

But you also think about attitudes there and here.

"One of our party, Alan Danes, a religious education teacher from Grey Coat Hospital school in Westminster, put it well. We make excuses for our pupils, but going somewhere like Burj el-Barajneh puts our pupils' problems into perspective. Despite the problems in the camps, they still have high expectations of their pupils and we should have the same for ours."

Education Action wants the teachers' experiences to inform the global citizenship work being done in schools. Sharing information and raising awareness is a key part of the Insight programme and it is something the senior management at St Margaret's is particularly keen on. Mrs Ballantine is being encouraged to weave her experiences into the school life. Further links were being considered, but these will be put on hold for now. The students, however, are helping to raise money.

Mrs Ballantine was asked to raise pound;5,000 after her Uganda trip. With the help of her school she raised pound;5,800. This time her target is Pounds 3,500 and she has a year to raise it. She already has pound;1,000.

It is unlikely she will stop there, especially as she feels so close to the tragedy now unfolding.

Education Action wants to recruit more teachers, and Mrs Ballantine intends to support their cause, championing it to other schools in and around Edinburgh, talking to teachers or students. The more teachers who witness the remarkable war-torn homes of people in the Lebanon or the sparse structures of Sierra Leone the better, she thinks, for all involved.


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