Wars may be started by adults, but the effects of war do not discriminate by age. The lives, and futures, of children are just as vulnerable to the physical and mental traumas of modern warfare.
Today, Aleppo is one of the most violent battlefields of the war in Syria, and an estimated 75,000 children survive amidst barrel bombs, air strikes and daily clashes.
The question of how to educate children trapped in conflict zones, or even how to let them play safely, unfortunately only grows in importance. But when the explosions stop, often the hardest work begins, as children try to recover from all that they have seen, heard, and suffered.
Hanan Al Hroub knows this only too well. A Palestinian mother of five, it was her own children’s trauma that spurred her into a teaching career, which led to her receiving the 2016 Global Teacher Prize.
On Thursday, Al Hroub came to the Harvard Kennedy School to share her experience combating trauma as a teacher.
A life-long resident of the West Bank, Al Hroub said the violence of the occupation came to her front door when Israeli forces fired upon the car her husband and her twins were travelling in. Although unhurt, her children struggled to deal with the incident. Their personalities changed, and the once-eager students now shunned school, afraid to leave their mother’s side.
Determined to help her children, Mrs Al Hroub set up a play corner in her home and began to re-introduce learning into their lives through play – the only time they returned to their former bubbly selves. Her plan worked, and soon her children began to flourish again. During the Second Intifada, when a daytime curfew forced children off the streets they normally played in, Mrs Al Hroub’s classroom swelled as news of her work spread.
After obtaining a master’s degree, Al Hroub became a teacher, aiming to apply what she had learned by steering her own children through trauma.
Not just learning
For the 43-year old teacher, school is much more than just education.
Mrs Al Hroub said she strives to make her classroom a safe space for her students, breeding mutual respect and a sense of worth. “I want kids to enrich themselves, rather than just learn,” she said.
Using the analogy of the Arabic word for suffering (‘alm) and that for hope (‘aml), she said that changing children’s outlook was key to her work – and that growing up in a refugee camp had been important to her own childhood.
She described the classroom as a “litmus test” for how her students conduct themselves in the world. When she started, “the violence that kids were seeing in the streets, they were carrying into the classroom,” she said. But after just a few months, their behavior, outlook on life and attitudes towards each other showed palpable improvement.
Though living with the constant threat of Israeli soldiers closing her school and arresting her, and with little support from the Palestinian authorities, she does not despair. “Every Palestinian is like me – we share a common cause. We have to play an active part in building Palestinian society,” Al Hroub said.
“There is no surrender. I don’t want my kids to go through the same 43 years of suffering and frustration.”