Schools and education systems can be a force for building peace or conflict within a society. In the Palestinian territories, CRS’ Values Building Education project works with schools to help youth become agents of peace. Building such a culture of peace is one of the key strategic priorities for CRS’ work in the education sector.
Throughout the Palestinian territories, economic crisis, restrictions on mobility, geographic fragmentation, ongoing harassment, and rampant violence have led to a fraying of the social fabric. Many Palestinians today prioritize sub-national group identities that exclude “the other.” This weakens the foundation of community values and shared ethics upon which democratic culture and concern for the common good are built. Amidst this backdrop, studies show children and youth are exhibiting high levels of stress-related disorders.
The Palestinian education system both reflects and reinforces these crises. Although there are many reasons for this — an overloaded curriculum, inadequate teaching skills, poorly equipped classrooms — the result is often students who are ill-prepared for the labor market and lack the life skills to deal with challenges proactively and positively. All of this leads to an atmosphere where youth feel little control over their environment and their future.
An Alternative to Violence
To address these concerns, CRS is implementing a Values Building Education project in secondary schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The project works with 1,470 students — as well as school administrators, teachers, parents and community members — to create learning environments designed to promote democratic citizenship, social responsibility, peace, social justice and reconciliation.
Through their participation, youth become actively engaged in social justice and peace issues in their communities. They learn to adopt a nonviolent disposition toward conflict. They are provided with the tools they need to manage the anger, frustration and isolation they so often feel as a result of their environment. And they are able to explore issues of national identity while practicing leadership skills, problem solving and team work.
One example of the type of activity students participate in is training in conflict resolution and mediation techniques. Peer mediation committees are formed in each class so that students themselves can resolve disputes among other students in school. The goal is that this will, in time, extend to home and the larger society. As an extension of this activity, students are taught to accept “the other” by building relationships between Muslims and Christians and refugees and non-refugees.
Another example is that youth are introduced to women’s and children’s rights. Afterward, they begin to identify where these rights are neglected within their own communities. Students then visit governmental and non-governmental institutions to identify steps to protect the rights of Palestinian women and children. This gives youth the tools to take constructive action to right the wrongs they see in their communities rather than resort to violence.
The Leaders of Tomorrow
The Values Building Education project is already having an impact on Palestinian youth.
In a recent evaluation of the project, students reported increased self-confidence, belief in their own abilities, respect for other people’s opinions, ability to make decisions democratically, and greater involvement in their communities and schools. The project has also given them a chance to build new friendships across religious and socio-economic lines with students from other schools, geographic areas, and communities.
According to Ghaida Rahil, CRS’ project manager in the West Bank, “Palestinian children live in a culture of violence now. By giving them these skills, we can change the society from a culture of violence to a culture of peace.” These youth will be the leaders of their communities in the future. They will be the ones to change society in a positive way. They will be our hope.
For more information, contact Anne Sellers (firstname.lastname@example.org), CRS Education Technical Advisor.