Palestine Pulse

Despite Challenges, Gaza's American School Perseveres

Article Summary
The American School in Gaza, once the target of anti-Western attacks, has persevered in the face of various challenges, writes Asmaa al-Ghoul.

Mohammed Haddad, a 12-year-old student in the American School in the Gaza Strip, kicks a soccer ball through the window of a third-grade classroom, breaking the glass. In the past, this never occurred, as the expansive playground at the school's former site was large enough for the ball to travel long distances without hitting anything fragile. However, that building, which was in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, was destroyed during the 2008-2009 war after it was bombed by Israeli F-16 jets. Now, the school is living a new reality. 

I learned to read in that school

Salma Shawa, a 16-year-old high school student in the American school, says that following the bombing she went to the school building. She tried to determine the location of the library, and headed in that direction. She said, "Nowadays, I read everything I can get my hands on. It was in the school library that I learned to love reading. At the time, I searched for my favorite book, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, but I couldn't find it. Everything was torn apart. Now, the school only has a small library, and most of the books are for children. It's very sad, everything has changed." She noted that even the textbooks were burned, and they now use photocopied versions. 

Mohammed Aouda, the school's principal, spoke to Al-Monitor in his school office. He said that he knows that the students are in need of a larger school building, and that they are trying to survive despite all the difficulties. 

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Speaking of these difficulties, Aouda said, "At the beginning of the Al-Aqsa intifada in late 2000, the Israeli occupation bombed the school's science lab. At the time, the school had just opened. We were forced to evacuate all of the teachers for a full month. When school started again, the two towers were attacked in New York, so the foreign teachers requested to live in the city of Majdal inside the Green Line, although they continued to teach within the strip."

Kidnapped workers

Aouda explained that from 2003 to 2006, the school went through another sensitive period. As the intifada carried on, everything American was targeted. In October 2003, a bomb exploded next to an American delegation that was leaving Gaza via the Erez Crossing. This increased fears among foreign teachers. The school's first batch of students was preparing to graduate, yet because of the tension the students completed the school year at the American School in Cairo, and graduated there in 2006. 

Aouda added that it was during this period that the school applied for its first international accreditation with the Middle States Association (MSA). This was an important step on the path to ensuring that the school's diplomas were recognized internationally. However, on Dec. 21, 2005, the school's principal and vice principal — both foreigners — were abducted. Furthermore, on March 15, 2006, other foreign workers were kidnapped at the hands of masked gunmen. It was always the case that the abducted were released through efforts by intermediaries from political factions or the presidential security apparatus. Aouda noted that these are difficult memories, and resulted in all foreign school staff leaving at the end of the 2006 academic year. 

The destruction of the school

Aouda continued, "The school's challenges did not end with that historical period but rather increased in 2007, when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. Within the school there was another challenge, shifting from an international teaching staff to a local staff. We surpassed this challenge, and the result was an educational product that was at the same level, or even better. However, a large number of students left the Gaza Strip with their families because of the political situation. Then, various incidents linked to the [Fatah-Hamas] split occurred. On Jan. 10, 2008, there was an explosion in the school's art room. This explosion was linked to [then-US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton's visit to the region. That very same month, Israelis stormed the school. As tensions reached their peak at the end of 2008, the war began that led to the destruction of the entire school."

According to press reports, following the school's destruction a female student named Abeer Obeid — who had graduated that year — enrolled in medical school at Yale University. She was one of the first Palestinians to enroll at Yale. 

As Aouda tried to close his window to block out the noise coming from the students at recess, he continued, "After the school was destroyed, Israel said that rockets were being fired from the vicinity of the school. So they responded with a bomb from an F-16 plane, which resulted in the destruction of the school and the death of its guard. These reports were rejected by many journalists, including some Israeli journalists."

John Kerry visited the debris

Aouda continued, as he looked at a collection of albums and reports: "The year the war occurred was a pivotal year, because it sparked interest in the school on the part of the US government. Previously, the US government had never shown interest in the school, despite the fact that it is a school that raises a US flag and teaches an American curriculum. The government donated stationery supplies, and a computer and science lab. Visitors from around the world came to see the destroyed school, including 10 members of Congress, among them John Kerry, the current US secretary of state." 

Aouda said, "When the school was established there were 87 students and 17 teachers. After the school was bombed, everyone began to view it as a nationalist entity, whereas previously they had viewed us as foreigners. There are now 500 students in the school, and the number is increasing. We even had to rent another building on an empty piece of land for a playground."

International accreditation 

Shawa dreams of enrolling in Harvard Law School, but is concerned about whether or not they would recognize her diploma, and if she would get "a scholarship or at least half-scholarship," as she put it. 

International accreditation is another challenge facing the school. Aouda confirmed that an international accreditation team was supposed to make a second visit to the school in 2007, but internal fighting between Fatah and Hamas derailed their efforts. The accreditation team was able to enter Gaza, but each member had to enter individually because of the crisis affecting the border crossing. Thus, the school received six separate evaluations, which Aouda said were neutral. He explained that the school met nine of 12 requirements for accreditation. The ones it did not meet involved fees paid to cover costs, the development of technological infrastructure and making the buildings safe in case of an emergency. 

He added with a sigh, "We followed the procedures to get accredited by the Advanced Foundation. Their team wanted to enter Gaza to evaluate the school, but the latest war in 2012 prevented them from coming. However, we held meetings [with them] in Cairo, and as the result of electronic visits the foundation gave the school accreditation in March of this year. This process will be finalized when the entire team is able to enter Gaza together." He then laughed, saying, "This time hopefully war will not break out."

Rising fees

Aouda provided electronic documents to support everything he said, including precise figures, in a meeting with parents which I attended, given that my son Nasser is a third-grade student at the school. A surprising development occurred, which created controversy at the meeting held at the Arkameed Hotel on April 15. The school plans to raise fees by 20% to cover the necessary costs to meet the requirements for international accreditation, buy textbooks and receive the resident team. 

During a meeting with Al-Monitor in Aouda's office, the school's director, Rabhi Salim, said that given the parents' complaints, the school will reduce this to a 15% increase. He clarified that the school suffers from a yearly deficit that exceeds $200,000, which cannot easily be covered by the Palestinian Authority's Palestinian Investment Fund, which was created for the school.

He added, "I'm optimistic concerning the current state of the school. It offers an excellent education according to professional standards. Its graduates are admitted to the best universities and compete for the best scholarships. Those who had previously attacked us with bombs, burn and destroyed the school, and abducted [its employees] are now convinced that we are a Palestinian school." He noted that the administration still hoped to one day obtain enough classrooms and a large playground.

Asmaa al-Ghoul is a journalist and writer from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza. 

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Found in: secretary of state john kerry, schools, gaza, fatah, education

Asmaa al-Ghoul is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse and a journalist from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.

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