Do you remember your first day at school? Your satchel felt as big as you were as you left the security of home to walk into an unfamiliar schoolyard and classrooms full of strangers.
In Palestine, just like here in Australia, the first day of school separates a child from the care and protection of parents, but the road to school isn’t as safe and simple as it is here. Children have not only to pass through Israel’s military checkpoints and deal with soldiers but also fear attack from residents of Israel’s illegal settlements. However, a high value is placed on education and parents are keen for children to have the best possible start in life, whether they live in modern Palestinian cities or remote, rural villages.
Leichhardt Friends of Hebron is dedicated to making those first steps to a new school easier for Palestinian students.
Who are Leichhardt Friends of Hebron?
Despite the name, only a few of us live in Leichhardt. When Marrickville formalised its sister city relationship with Bethlehem, some Leichhardt residents were inspired to follow. However, we have taken a different path, concentrating on community-to-community links rather than a formal sister-city arrangement.
We chose Hebron, one of the oldest cities in the world, as our partner. Its importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims is connected to the patriarch Abraham who is believed to be buried there, along with his wife Sarah and other family members (Genesis 23). Today, it is a city under siege, with Israeli occupation forces severely restricting the movement of more than 120,000 Palestinian residents, while the few hundred residents of the illegal Israeli settlement are given army protection and allowed to move about freely.
Since our beginnings in Leichhardt in 2008 we have grown and attracted supporters from all over Sydney and even as far as Darwin! We focus our energy on supporting education initiatives in Palestine. Fundraising activities help Australians better understand the situation in Hebron and also support much-needed educational projects for some of the most disadvantaged students in occupied Palestine.
Our Dkaika Education Access project
Our current project assists children, especially girls, living in an isolated and vulnerable community in the far south of Palestine, to attend high school. Residents of Dkaika village, population 320, live in Palestine but their lives are completely under the control of the Israeli government. Sadly, the community faces a targeted campaign of isolation and destruction from the Israeli army.
“One way of helping it survive,” says Hamed Qawasmeh, a Human Rights Officer at UN Office of the High Comissioner for Human Rights, “is the provision of basic services, including education. Students must be allowed to continue their education to assure the survival of the community.”
Dkaika has a growing number of school-age children, many of whom saw their homes demolished in 2011. The Israeli occupation forces even demolished a classroom in their small primary school. Nevertheless, school brings some stability and hope to these children.
This year, Friends of Hebron are focusing their fundraising efforts on providing transport for students who might otherwise be unable to continue their education. As in rural Australia, the village school goes only to Year 6 and students have to travel further afield for high school. Until now, they have had to walk up to 9km to reach high school with donkeys the only alternative transport. University was an impossible 26km away.
Friends of Hebron provides wages for a driver and fuel for a vehicle so long distances are no longer a barrier to high school attendance. Our transport scheme has also allowed three young women to take up their university places in the nearby town of Yatta, with another to join them in the new semester.
The transport scheme has won the approval of the children. “My sisters envy me because I go to school in the van. I told them to wait till next year. Then we will go together,” says 12-year-old Laila Musa Suleiman Smmeira Al Najada.“The girls feel safer now as the transport brings protection from the settlers,” says driver Khalil Suleiman Smeira Al Najada.
The kindergarten projects
“Thanks to the generosity of supporters across Sydney, but especially the people of the Inner West, we have been able to help establish three bright and cheerful kindergartens and keep a school bus on the road,” says Miriam Pellicano, secretary of Friends of Hebron.
“Our first project was the kindergarten for Umm Al Khair village, which is located in an area where any permanent dwellings are demolished by the Israeli Occupation Forces,” said Sonia von Bornemann, the convenor of Friends of Hebron. “This community is considered by international organisations to be one of the most vulnerable in the southern West Bank. Israel does not permit the villagers to build permanent homes nor are they allowed access to the electricity and piped water provided for residents of Israel’s illegal Karmel settlement adjacent to the village.”
Twenty-five children were attending the kindergarten but, due to harassment from settlers, the numbers dropped in 2014. However, the children will return to kindy in 2015 as we will extend the transport scheme to help them. After dropping off the Dkaika students at high school, the driver will collect the littlies and deliver them safely to their kindergarten.
The last word on the school transport project goes to Omar Mahmoud Suleiman Smeira Al Najada, a typical 13-year-old from Dkaika, who says: “Now I don’t have to wake up so early to walk to school. That is much better than last year.”
Our partner organisations
In Australia, Friends of Hebron works in partnership with the charity, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, an agency fully accredited with the Australian government’s overseas aid sector, AusAID. Tax deductible donations for our projects can be made via this charity. Our overseas partners include Hebron International Resource Network (HIRN), the UK Shalom-Salaam Trust, the Hebron-Exeter Twinning Association (UK), and UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees).