THE CELEBRATION for Hanan al-Hroub is audible even before the taxi pulls up to the Samiha Khalil School on an unnamed street in the city of Al-Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority, March 22.
The previous week, thousands of people had gathered in Al-Manara Square, the main traffic hub of downtown Ramallah to watch a broadcast of al-Hroub being awarded the second annual $1 million Global Teacher of the Year, sponsored by the London-based Varkey Foundation. The award ceremony was broadcast live from Dubai and shown locally on massive screens set up by the PA. Al-Hroub’s victory set off a massive celebration.
Now, it is her pupils’ turn to party and welcome their teacher back, just two days after returning to school following a month-long teachers’ strike. Inside the school grounds, the party is in full swing.
A group of teenage girls in traditional dress dance the dabke folk dance with large speakers blaring Arabic music in the background as a crowd gathers to watch. Young boys dart around the courtyard with lollypops and soft drinks purchased from a kiosk set up for the occasion. Black, white, green and red Palestinian flags flutter in the breeze on the clear, warm spring day.
When the bell rings at 10:15 signaling the end of recess, the 29 second graders in al- Hroub’s class run noisily into her classroom, whooping and jumping after the break, but settle down quickly once the teacher begins the math lesson. She instructs the students to write the numbers one to 20 on plastic sheets taped to their desks and walks around the room saying good morning to each student.
At first glance, the student body does not appear to be an at-risk population.
Groups of teenage girls gossip and smile in the halls, while younger kids spend their energy playing tag, hide-and-seek and other playground games. All the students sport clean, middle-class attire, with many of the female students wearing stylish hijab head coverings and dresses (80 percent of the student population are girls; boys attend the school until third grade). The building, a gift from the government of Norway, is new and clean.
However, talking to teachers and students, all say that their lives are plagued by violence. One-third of the students come from nearby refugee camps, and nearly all witness or hear some form of traumatic, violent incident “regularly,” according to the school’s principal Iman Zeiden.
According to the Varkey Foundation, a British-based nonprofit organization established to improve education standards for underprivileged children around the world, al-Hroub’s greatest contribution has been to embrace nonviolence and to inculcate this to her primary school students.
It was later revealed that al-Hroub’s husband Omar spent 10 years in an Israeli prison after being convicted as an accomplice in the terrorist murder of six Israelis in Hebron in 1980.
The foundation says al-Hroub’s “play and learn” philosophy shows her students a path toward implementing her slogan “No to violence.”
It also lauded her for “developing trusting, respectful, honest and affectionate relationships with her students” and rewarding positive behavior, all of which “has led to a decline in violent behavior in schools where this is usually a frequent occurrence.”
“I am not only a teacher,” she tells The Jerusalem Report after class. “Because most of the children here come from a violent environment due to the nature of our society and the nature of the situation that we are living in, I feel that you have to teach principles and morals before you can go into ‘technical’ education about things like math and reading.
“If a child is not able to sit in class without acting violently against his peers, it isn’t possible for him or her to learn, or to understand what they are learning. And I can’t stress it enough ‒ listening is key. Once the students learn how to listen to each other, they can begin to understand where those violent occurrences may be coming from.”
Al-Hroub stresses that she, too, is no stranger to violence.
Growing up in the Dheisheh refugee camp just south of Bethlehem, and then living in Ramallah during the second intifada, clashes with the IDF were a regular part of the environment. Now 43, she claims that she and some of her children have been shot at by Israeli soldiers and her husband, who works at the PA Economy Ministry, is not the only member of her extended family to have spent time in an Israeli prison.
Asked how those experiences influence her teaching, al-Hroub jokes that she is not “superwoman,” and admits there is only so much she can do to guide her students.
“Of course, everybody who lives within the society is impacted by the reality around us and is going to be affected by it. But I try to create a safe environment for my students within the classroom. I want them to feel that this is their haven. I can’t control anything that happens outside the classroom, but I can make it their refuge, their place to feel safe,” she says.
To accomplish that goal, al-Hroub’s teaching methods focus largely on games and playing. The classroom itself is well equipped, with an ample reading corner decorated with kangaroo cutouts. There is a puppet theater that has been repurposed from a discarded metal laundry line, as well as a special drawing desk, also recycled, from a neighbor who had thrown it away and which was decorated by al-Hroub.
“I use all these things to work with the problem of violence, but also to teach them discipline without imposing strict rules. I don’t want to tell them ‘no, you can’t do that,’” she says. “Instead, games have rules built into them, so whenever you teach a child a game, you’re teaching them to follow rules. The rules also make them smarter, because it forces them to be innovative. Also, games teach the students not to fear losing. Losing is part of the game, but so is looking for ways to win.”
The influence al-Hroub’s passion and personality, especially her ability to listen, have had on her students is evident at all levels. Her second graders clearly view her as a warm, maternal figure. When class is dismissed, many of the children crowd around the teacher, as she tries to pack up her things, anxious for a high-five and to share with her the latest goings-on in their lives before heading home for the day.
Older students say al-Hroub is a trusted confidante and role model. Former students now in their early teens, as well as 12th graders who never experienced her classroom, say she motivates them to excel at their studies, but, even more importantly, she is always available for a heart-to-heart talk.
“More than anything, you know that she’s interested in you, that you are close to her heart,” says 16-year-old Meliha in excellent English. “She has lots of patience for us. My dream is to study English and business, and to get a good job. I want to be a translator.”
And yet, serious questions surround al- Hroub’s commitment to nonviolence education.
Looking across the wadi at the red roofs of Psagot, an Israeli settlement in clear view on the hilltop facing the school, she refuses to answer questions about what she teaches concerning Israel and Israelis, nor will she expound on the principles and morals she tries to impart to her students.
Asked how she counters the constant messages aimed at young Palestinians ‒ on the walls of refugee camps, in Palestinian media and by authority figures in the society ‒ that people who kill Israeli civilians are “heroes” and “martyrs,” al-Hroub dodges the question.
“I don’t like to touch these political aspects,” she says. “We all know the reality. I like to bring into the classroom ways to teach them the essentials for life later on, the essentials they will need to build a future for their country. I use games, because playing gives them a love for learning, love for a future, for having hope, these aspects of education.
“So, yes, this is the reality that we live in, but I don’t want to bring it in here. I want to teach them how to live, how to navigate that reality.”
Asked the same question about Israel and Israelis, principal Zeiden says she has been forbidden by the PA Education Ministry to address questions of Israeli-Palestinian relations, apologizing that she is only permitted to discuss “Hanan and her award.”
On the other hand, al-Hroub’s reticence could stem from the terrorist bombing that hadn’t been mentioned by the Varkey Foundation. Omar al-Hroub was a chemist who provided the material for making the bombs, which killed the six people in the 1980 attack in Hebron and injured 20 others.
Asked about the family connection, Varkey refused to address questions submitted by The Report about whether it was aware of this incident before granting the award; whether Hanan disavowed that attack before receiving the award; or whether or not the foundation feels the murders committed by Omar al-Hroub detract from his wife’s commitment to teaching peace to young Palestinians.
“The judging process examines the qualities and achievements of the candidates themselves, only,” read a Varkey Foundation statement.
Similarly, a spokesman for Hanan refused to translate and forward a series of follow- up questions, submitted by email in the days following our interview after the details of her husband’s past became public on the Palestine Chronicle newspaper website.
These questions included details about the shooting incident at her and her children; whether she was able to steer her children away from violence; and what messages have defined the raising of her children ‒ her message of nonviolence or that of her husband? There was also no response to the question whether Omar’s views on violence have changed. However, a PLO official told the Associated Press news agency that Omar accepted the Oslo Agreements in 1993 and now supports the two-state solution.
Still, Hanan Al-Hroub’s second graders can be seen in a Varkey Foundation video announcing her candidacy for the Global Teacher Prize energetically saying “No to violence.” And Zeiden asserted that the award “shows the world that we don’t only have war here in Palestine, and that we Palestinians are not all terrorists. We are creative, productive, civilized, and we are peace makers.”
But some of the older students admit to The Report that a peace maker stance is a hard to maintain in the face of the day-today challenges they face.
“Do I think there will be peace with the Israelis in my lifetime?” says 17-year-old Sandy, an 11th grader. “No, I don’t think so. Do I even want it? I’m not sure. I live a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem, but I’ve only been able to visit al-Aksa Mosque once, in 2004. I’ve never even seen the sea ‒ here in my own country! There are Israelis everywhere, and they kill our children. How can we make peace with people like that?”