“Educate a girl, educate a nation.”
Written by Hopes for Women in Education Volunteer.
Ghada Issa has been described as magical, unorthodox, and full of hope. Ever humble towards the praises sung about her by her colleagues and the parents of the girls she teaches, Ghada is a testament to the idea that one can empower others by empowering oneself. That Ghada also has a little sparkle in her has also helped make her a cherished teacher for children struggling to gain a formal education under the decades old siege on the Gaza strip.
“Moving from the student desk to the teacher’s spot has been an exciting step in my life. It is very rewarding work; especially when you continue connecting with your students and help them gain language skills they will need to meet the world very confidently.” Ghada, who graduated from Al Aqsa University in Gaza, teaches English to 5th and 6th grade students at an UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) school for refugees.
“I love to bring music to my class. Music is our friend as it soothes the stress away and boosts the mood. We sing songs together at the beginning in the lesson as a warm-up.” One popular method that Ghada uses to teach English is to have her students act out the lyrics to English songs. Her methods are fairly unconventional in Gaza, but parents are reporting that their daughters are able to read and speak English on their own as a result of Ghada’s teaching methods. “It is the magic that makes them feel passionate about their English lessons and have fun learning.”
“When I first started teaching in a girls school my students were surprised to meet a teacher who sings and dances along with them and plays with them!” However, music is not just a learning tool for Ghada, who often uses music to lighten the mood in her classroom.
A 2010 study of students in Gaza by the United Nations demonstrates that living under occupation has had a significant impact on the mental health of young people living in the strip. Of the students surveyed who were attending secondary school at the time of the study, 62.9% did not feel safe at school and 76.3% worried about the risk of a future war. 88.6% felt sad and 86.3% felt nervous. 48.5% were not hopeful about the future.
“The results of using music from time to time in my class was a kind of remedy for them and me. The serious frown faces are left out of the class. We forget about all the troubles in the outside world, and smile, giggle and laugh for few minutes.”
Ghada also considers sports to be a vital part of education as it promotes health and well-being. However, girls are experiencing difficulties at participating in school sports to the extent that boys are. Physical education is considered secondary, especially for girls, to other academic subjects. Instead, female students are expected to fill their time with further study.
Earlier this year, UNRWA organised a public marathon in Gaza for all people of all ages; the aim of which was to raise funds for summer games for the community, as well as curing boredom among children who were likely to be playing in unsafe places. In the run-up to the Gaza Marathon the Hamas government voiced its objection to women participating in the games. Hamas, elected in 2006, are no strangers to fundamentalism and extreme conservatism, and have consistently failed to address women’s issues. At the last moment, Hamas cancelled the Gaza Marathon rather than allow women to run.
“It was a clear infringement of the women rights as well as breaking and invasion for the personal and public freedom,” says Ghada. Yet she remains determined that her students will not allow their circumstances to undermine their ability to express their talents. Resilience in the face of adversity, particularly when one is told that one ‘cannot’ or ‘should not’, is the key to success, claims Ghada.
“The political, social and economic instability shouldn’t hinder our children’s dreams. I hope they could get opportunities to develop skills and abilities; become creative, interactive, capable, and competitive to maximize their contribution and improve the quality of their lives. They should never belittle themselves or let others belittle them.”
One of the more pressing problems that teachers are facing in the UNRWA school is the lack of space. Classrooms are bursting with students and teachers are having to deliver classes to 40-50 students per class. “As a language teacher, it is very emotionally and physically exhausting as I try to reach the demands of almost all the students, paying attention to their individual differences, motivating them and keeping the discipline consistent in a very a short time (45 minutes class and sometimes less than that ). Believing in my girls is what keeps me moving forward.”
Empowering others through self-empowerment
Motivating her students to work hard and to find creative solutions to their very real problems has, in turn, motivated Ghada to continue with her education, and she hopes to gain an MA English as soon as possible.
“I hope to get the best knowledge and experience that will help me help my students fulfil their dreams and uphold human values. I look back to my school days as I finished my school study in different places; Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the final phase in a refugees UNRWA school in Gaza and undoubtedly without the help and unlimited support of my parents and some amazing teachers I wouldn’t have been what I am now. I hope to leave a positive influence and good memory.”
Ghada’s efforts to put herself in the best possible position as a teacher earned her the Fulbright-FLTA (Foreign Language Teaching Assistant) scholarship early on in her career and she subsequently travelled to America to work as an Arabic Teaching Assistant and cultural ambassador at Elms College in Massachusetts.
Delivering a course in Palestinian culture to a US audience who are rarely exposed to Palestinians and stories of life under occupation was “remarkable” says Ghada, “especially when you work on exploring your own strengths.” Working in the United States confirmed for Ghada that teaching was her calling. But it was her experiences responding to the crisis that enfolded after Operation Cast Lead in 2008 that helped her to understand the value that a teacher can have on a community.
“The highlight of my working life was when I worked with MAG International (Mines Advisory Group) in Gaza after the 2008 Cast Lead operation. It was a great experience and I still appreciate the chance that led me to work there.” Operation Cast Lead, a three week long armed conflict between Palestinian fighters and the Israeli military caused between 1,000 and 1,500 Palestinian deaths and just over a dozen Israeli deaths. It also resulted in extensive damage to Gaza’s infrastructure; much of which has never been restored.
Alongside her colleagues at MAG international, Ghada reached out to vulnerable communities and delivered Mine Risk Education sessions to those most at risk of further suffering following the Cast Lead operation. Together with these communities, Ghada and her colleagues worked towards “removing the remnants of war.”
“It was an unforgettable lesson in humanity and steadfastness, meeting with people who lived in fear and faced death, lost very dear people and almost all what they have, but still having a strong will and a deep belief to keep their lives going on and building their futures once again.”
Passing on the torch
“Teachers live every year waiting to harvest what they have been working on throughout the year. We teach very heartily, faithfully and with the most of our love and care of our children in order to achieve their full potential. That’s only what makes my efforts pay off.”
For Ghada and countless other teachers in Gaza, sharing their wisdom and instilling in their students a sense of hope is a moral responsibility. An education like the one that Ghada works so tirelessly to deliver can give and determine whether a child is able to lift himself or herself out of poverty; or from the severe restrictions on movement and freedom of expression. It can guide a child towards a future where they are the sole author of their life story; where self-determination, political and personal, is no longer denied to them.
These children will drive a new era of conflict resolution. And in empowering themselves, as Ghada empowered herself, they will empower their communities. “In Palestine, children live in a miserable economic and political situations beyond their control and it is out of their choice. That is enough reason to create chances to let them determine their future and make a real transformation in our society.”
The best place to start? Improving the quality of education for girls. Globally, 60% of the children without an education are girls. Yet studies show that providing girls with access to a formal education can lift communities out of poverty; reduce gender based violence and discrimination; and increase female representation in government, GDP, and physical health and wellbeing of children. “It is true,” says Ghada, “educate a girl, you educate a nation.”
About Ghada Issa:
You can connect with Ghada via Facebook