A Hope for the Future

by Claudia McDonnell
photos by Diane Garnette

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A refugee camp, by definition, is supposed to be a temporary shelter. It is constructed to serve in an emergency; it is a way station for people who need to find a new home.

In the lands of the Near East, some refugee camps have become more than temporary places to live, even though the people in them do not think of them as home. The Baqaa camp, about 12 miles north of Amman, Jordan, has housed Palestinian refugees since the 1967 war ended. They dream of returning to their homes on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. They hold down the roofs of their one-story dwellings with stones and cement blocks to show that they don’t intend to stay. But for now they have nowhere else to go.

It is especially hard on the children. All children need stability and permanence, the chance to put down roots in a place that they know is their own. They need to feel they are part of a tradition, not the nameless occupants of a makeshift neighborhood that grew up because of a war. The children of the camps need a chance to learn, to play, to discover that with love and hope and hard work they can build new lives.

The Pontifical Mission, sister organization of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association is helping to give the children that chance by building schools in the refugee camps. Since 1969, schools have been going up not only in Baqaa but also in the camps at Marka, Jarash and Souf. For the children, they are islands of stability in a sea of disruption. One thing at least remains constant in the displaced youngsters’ lives: they are going to school. For most of them, education represents the only hope of leaving the camp one day and finding employment and permanent homes.

In the camp at Baqaa, there are 24 elementary and secondary schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Of the 24 UNRWA schools, 15 were built by the Pontifical Mission. The total enrollment is more than 14,200, with approximately 6,854 girls and 7,392 boys taught by 369 teachers.

The Pontifical Mission has also built several of the Baqaa schools run by the Ministry of Education of the Jordan government. An additional 1,735 students – 1,125 girls and 610 boys – attend these schools, which are staffed by 80 teachers.

Numbers tell only part of the story, however. The goal of the Pontifical Mission is not to count heads, but to help train minds. Like children everywhere, the boys and girls in Baqaa have their own special talents and dreams. The task of the camp schools is to see that those talents and dreams are nourished and brought to fruition, not left to wither and die in the acrid atmosphere of poverty and bitterness.

Fathiyeh’s dream is to be a teacher. She can practice at home: although she is only 8, Fathiyeh has four younger sisters ranging in age from 7 to 18 months. Already she is helping her mother to take care of them. She likes Arabic best of all her subjects at school, and her teachers say she is quick and intelligent. Although she loves games, she does her homework before she goes outside to play with her friends.

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Tags: Children Palestine Jordan Education Refugee Camps