Hanan Al Hroub

At a lecture organised by the University of Cambridge's REAL Centre, the winner of the 2016 Global Teacher Prize emphasises the importance of education in conflict zones

79% of refugee children have experienced a death in the family; 45% display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hanan Al Hroub

“The role of education for refugee children is not only to teach them to read and write,” said Hanan Al Hroub, “but also to help them deal with what they have experienced”.

Speaking recently at Hughes Hall, part of the University of Cambridge, Ms Al Hroub, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem, remembered an early role-model:

“In 1979, when I was a student in Grade 2, our new teacher introduced herself by saying: ‘My name is Julia, I am from Bethlehem, what is your name?’ As we introduced ourselves she explained the meaning of our names in a way that made us feel very special.”

“She won our hearts. I could not wait to see her the next morning. She was the source of my inspiration. Every time I looked at her I said to myself: I will become like her one day.”

“Many years later when I became a teacher and set foot in a classroom for the very first time I also introduced myself by saying: ‘My name is Hanan, which means affection’. I then explained the meaning of all the children’s names. I hope it made them feel very special too.”

Explaining how she became a teacher, Ms Al Hroub said:

“The spark that set me on the road to becoming a teacher was when my own children developed trauma after witnessing a horrific incident on the way back from school. They became withdrawn, very afraid to go back to school, and very aggressive towards each other. Their academic work also suffered, and there was no professional help available.”

“Feeling very alone, I researched in libraries and bookshops and taught my children at home. A corner of our house became their new classroom. I started playing with my children to help them open up. We used balloons, puppets and role play –anything—to bring out their inner child. Eventually they got over their trauma, and returned to school. From then on I made it my purpose in life to help traumatised children in Palestinian public schools.”

Ms Al Hroub, who teaches primary school pupils at the Samiha Khalil School, outside Ramallah, described the impact of daily conflict on children:

“Here children witness violence first hand, or are exposed to it through news reports and social media. This suffering gets into the classroom and leads to frustration. The atmosphere is not normal. We see the suffering in our students’ eyes every day.”

Her experience of educating her own children at home led her to develop a method of education through play:

“I decided that teachers, like artists, must create an environment that frees the child and their imagination from their daily trauma, and helps them shape them shape it in a loving and beautiful way.”

The constraints, she added, are severe:

“Due to a lack of funding I need to be creative to bring my lessons to life. I have built reading corners in the classroom, and chairs for the students from discarded vegetable boxes. I design games from my sister’s neglected Lego pieces. Mathematics lessons are done with the aid of plastic cups, plates and clothespins. I made a puppet theatre out of a former clotheshorse, and an orchard in the classroom from artificial grass. The only limit is your imagination.”

The outcome, she said, had been very positive. The Ministry of Education in Palestine was now encouraging other schools to follow the same principles. “It should be the first priority to provide a safe, attractive and fun educational environment.”

These lessons, she added, are relevant for the UK too:  “Hundreds of refugee children have landed on these shores. We must remember that these children are scared, alone, and traumatised. The UK government must ensure that these children have a safe, secure and loving environment.”

She reminded the audience that “79% of refugee children have experienced a death in the family, while 45% display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Around the world, she concluded, teaching is not as valued as other professions. “But teachers are the real power of the world. It is teachers that light the spark of curiosity. And it is teachers that point and guide the way. It is teachers who take the next generation in their hands and shape it.”

Ms Al Hroub complimented the work carried out by the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education and the REAL Centre: “The University of Cambridge is helping to shine a light on teachers –something the world needs more than ever before.”

This view was echoed by Philippa Lei, Director of Programmes of the Malala Fund, who in responding to Ms Al Hroub’s lecture said:

“Pauline Rose and the REAL Centre have done some important work showing how girls fall further behind in their education when they are in situations of conflict. The world is not making sure that girls and boys are getting a good quality education when it comes to conflict and emergencies.”

“A large part of that is because people misunderstand what education in emergencies is about. There’s a question of why do children who have fled their countries need to read and write. The thought is that surely that’s not the most important thing in their lives. This doesn’t take into account the impact that education can have on children in terms of restoring that sense of normality, giving them a place of peace, to recover, to grow and make sense of what has happened to them. The Malala Fund is calling governments to realise that education is essential for building peace.”

The Global Teacher Prize is a US $1 million award presented annually to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession.

Awarded by the Varkey Foundation under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister, and Emir of Dubai, the prize serves to underline the importance of educators, celebrate their efforts and recognise their impact. A shortlist of 50 teachers has recently been announced for the 2017 prize. The winner will be announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum taking place in Dubai on 18-19 March 2017.


Studying education & international development at Cambridge

Cambridge’s Faculty of Education excels in research and teaching relating to the links between education, policy, globalisation and international development. The Faculty offers a BA in Education track in Education, Policy & International Development – and an MPhil programme in Education, Globalisation and International Development. These programmes give students access to leading academics in this area, and excellent career prospects.

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