Khan al-Ahmar: Visiting a Bedouin Village & School
September 4th, 2013 // 2:00 PM
Today I woke up at 6:30 to leave from Bethlehem and get to the UNRWA West Bank central office in Jerusalem by 9:00. After that we would make a visit to the Bedouin village in Khan al Ahmar, and a special school that has been established there for the Bedouin community in the Jerusalem district.
Is Jerusalem really only a few kilometers from Bethlehem? My cousin and niece, in her new school uniform ready for her second day in the first grade, dropped me off at the bus stop at Bab z-Zqaq to take bus 21 through the check point to its last stop in front of Bab al ‘Amud (Damascus Gate) in front of the old city. I’m ashamed to say this is only the third time I have gone into Jerusalem since I arrived here and my first time taking this route through the checkpoint on the bus. I feel guilty and frustrated knowing that most of my Palestinian family and friends living in the West Bank are systematically denied their right to this passage, which I make with relative effortlessness due the blue American passport in my bag. Only the blue Israeli Jerusalem hawiyye (identification card) or a special permission permit, provide West Bank Palestinians access to this city. The green colored huwiyye restricts Palestinian movement to the West Bank territory, and even within it there are countless limits due to private Israeli roads and the illegally annexed settlement territories, surrounded by electric, barbed fencing and walls. I’m used to preparing myself to have my passport checked due to the various checkpoints within the West Bank; however, seeing the soldiers step mechanically onto the bus to control the passenger identity cards for the appropriate permission still feels like an grave invasion of personal space and reeks of apartheid. Even so, this is only a minor procedure from the Israeli government’s numerous practices of humiliation and oppression techniques characteristic of the mental, physical and economic occupation of Palestine.
As we drive through Jerusalem I notice at the bus stops along the way that, although several bus lines are indicated at each stop, line 21 is absent. This is because line 21 is a Palestinian bus – ostensibly Palestinian only – reinforcing segregation and the desired invisibility of an indigenous Palestinian population. Here in Jerusalem I feel that I see this segregation everywhere. I am told on the bus that today marks the beginning of the Jewish new year, and that as a result the old city is packed with the orthodox population who are barring Palestinian access or entrance. It will be a tense day, I am told.
After my arrival at the UNRWA, we headed to the Ministry of Education Office in Al-Ram, a large Palestinian town in the Jerusalem district, where we met with the director, who introduced us to the issues being faced by the Bedouin community and school of Khan al Ahmar. This community, like so many Bedouin communities, faces the continual threat of demolition and expulsion. Some years back a portion of the school was demolished by Israel for the construction of a new highway. When we arrived at the new school we sat down with the principal who told us the history of her institution. The new school was constructed in 2009 through an Italian initiative of engineers, and a Belgium group which funded the solar energy system that keeps the school running together with a back up generator. Because the the Israeli authorities destroyed the main entrance to the school, the only access to the Bedouin village (apart from a rough and often impassible dirt road), is to pull over to the side of the Israeli freeway and step over the divider ramp into the encampment.
The conditions that the Bedouin villagers live in is strict and severe. With no running water or electricity, both must be provided externally through shipments of water and alternative energy sources. Even so, as we step onto the school premises we are greeted by the children’s smiling faces, waving and welcoming the unexpected visitors into their classrooms.
Initially, when the school opened it hosted grades one through four with a total of about 45 students, and has expanded rapidly over the past few years with a current population of 122 students ranging from grades one through eight. To help facilitate ease of access, the Ministry of Education has established special busses to provide transport for children from Bedouin communities to these schools, currently with 2 buses in the Jerusalem district, and 20 buses in the whole of the West Bank. The principal tells us that the next school is about 35 kilometers away, near Jericho.
The primary purpose of my trip here was the opportunity to visit both the school and the library – a project with which Sacramento Bethlehem Sister City collaborated so these students may have a the appropriate learning resources. When we asked the head mistress of the school what she would ask for to further improve the learning conditions for her students, she was at first hesitant, but given that the needs of students are many, her suggestions provided me with numerous ideas for possible other projects we may initiate in Sacramento to further assist in the continued development of this school and its student body. For the library, they are still in need of informative texts such as encyclopedias and texts covering various areas of general knowledge appropriate for students from the first to eighth grade. They are also lacking the appropriate space to hold these texts, and are in need of bookshelves.
The most important aspect of this trip for me was seeing the enthusiasm of these students in the face of the daily hardships they face, not only from challenging living conditions, but the threat of displacement. With the recent Prawer Plan, it is increasingly evident that the Bedouin community is the most easily displaced and at risk community when it comes to the ever expanding settlements and land confiscations of the Israeli government. It is little secret in this area that the settlers living next to the Bedouin villages in Khan al Ahmar commonly harassed children walking from their homes up to three kilometers past the settlements to the school. Nonetheless, it is clear when talking to the principal and her staff that their energy must be placed first and foremost in their pupils, and not the possible displacement. “We are preparing them for university,” she says. In other words, the Palestinians must continue to prepare for their future (and prepare their children for their future), even while this future is at risk, for this is perhaps the most potent form of resistance there is.