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It was like a fairy tale: in March 2016, an elementary schoolteacher in a camp for Palestinian refugees suddenly found she was headline news. From The Guardian to The New York Times, readers were mesmerized by the story of Hanan al-Hroub (43) from al-Bireh, close to Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, who had beaten some 8,000 candidates from around the world to win the $1 million Global Teacher prize.
At a ceremony in Dubai, US Vice President Joe Biden and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge were among those who paid tribute to al-Hroub. This was something she could never have imagined. Like the children she teaches, al-Hroub grew up in a refugee camp, the Dheisheh Camp, along the main road in Bethlehem. UNRWA, the United Nations organization responsible for the camps, describes Dheisheh as a place with high unemployment, lack of open space and poor sewerage.
The camps for Palestinian refugees were created after the Nakba, the 1948 events in which about 700,000 Palestinians were displaced by the creation of the state of Israel. Many of their villages were subsequently destroyed. Despite an UN resolution that provides the Palestinian refugees with the so-called ‘right of return’, Israel does not allow them into the country. Up to this day, many (descendants of) refugees still live in poor conditions in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and even Syria, where the war is making their lives more than miserable.
In the camp where she grew up, says al-Hroub, “deprivation was the hallmark of the era”. Her parents struggled to provide for their children, six boys and four girls, “yet people in the camp developed a great spirit of collaboration.”
Despite the hardships, al-Hroub, a Muslim who wears a headscarf, says she feels lucky to have grown up in Bethlehem, home to a large Christian community and the Church of the Nativity, because it exposed her “to cultures and peoples from many different nations”. The residents of Bethlehem, she says, had a reputation among the many tourists who visited the city “of being an affectionate and loving people who cared for each other”. Between the Muslims and the Christians, “there was no dissent on any religious or race grounds”.
Her father wanted her to be a pediatrician, of which there was only one in the city at the time. “But my choices changed for different reasons, events passed me by and I instead headed for education as a career. I am proud that I took that decision; it meant I ended up working with children anyway.”
In al-Bireh, where the Samiha Khalil school is located, al-Hroub works with children who have suffered all kinds of trauma. To help them cope, she developed a game-based teaching technique that builds confidence and self-esteem. She initially used the method with her own children, who were left traumatized after being shot at by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in 2000.
Over time, al-Hroub refined the technique and now uses a range of educational games. She adapts them to the Palestinian situation, in which violence is endemic. Even though al-Bireh is situated in ‘Area A’, where the Palestinians enjoy military and administrative control, the Israeli army still enters the city whenever it feels it is necessary.
For a teacher working in these circumstances, $1 million is a vast sum. Al-Hroub says she will use the prize money to set up a non-profit organization “to support teachers with their own methodologies in education, to motivate teachers to use their initiative and creativity”. The potential impact of such an organization cannot be overstated: study after study shows that of all the factors in educating a child, teachers make the difference.
Yet al-Hroub is not limiting herself to education. “The organization will have another social responsibility dimension by supporting cancer patients in different ways. I also want to encourage students who show academic potential to choose the teaching profession by providing scholarships for them.” This career choice is far from a given in a country where the majority of students choose professions such as medicine, engineering, pharmacy and law.
As a mother of five – her children range in age from 18 to 23 years old – al-Hroub also hopes to fulfill her own educational dreams. “I plan to complete my master’s degree and a PhD. Moreover, I’d like to fund my children to complete their university studies; some of them have completed their undergraduate studies while others are still studying at the undergraduate level.”
Al-Hroub’s achievement can be seen as a boost for Palestinians at a time when the Israeli occupation is deepening. In June 2016, the UN described Israel as the primary cause of Palestinian suffering. For Palestinian teachers, the prize may already be having a positive effect: hours after the announcement of al-Hroub’s win, the Palestinian Authority raised teachers’ salaries by 10%.