In East Jerusalem, A School Where Kids Can Be Kids One Palestinian entrepreneur has traded throwing stones for building schools. Politics have no place in the classrooms at the experimental kindergarten for Palestinian children founded by Mahmoud Jamal, who spent two years in jail during the first Palestinian uprising against Israel.
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In East Jerusalem, A School Where Kids Can Be Kids

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In East Jerusalem, A School Where Kids Can Be Kids

In East Jerusalem, A School Where Kids Can Be Kids

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Central to U.S. policy in the Middle East is a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. If those talks - now under way - have any chance of success, one reason is the profound change taking place in the West Bank. For most Palestinians living there, violence is out; economic empowerment is in.

NPR's Deborah Amos profiles one Palestinian businessman who is helping future generations learn from the mistakes of his own past.

DEBORAH AMOS: The lessons for these Palestinian children aged 3 to 5: Learn to stand quietly in line, and recognize colors in Arabic and English - the beginning of language skills.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: With a camera in every classroom, parents can watch the kids learn online in this private, experimental kindergarten.

Mahmoud Jamal opened the school two years ago, financing the project himself by selling a successful furniture factory.

Mr. MAHMOUD JAMAL (Founder, Jerusalem Kindergarten): I started this as an NGO who wanted to fix the situation of early education especially, and education in general in East Jerusalem.

AMOS: The state of Israel is responsible for educating the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem, seized and later annexed after the 1967 war. But with a shortage of classrooms and budgets much lower than for Israeli schools, the dropout rates are the highest for Palestinians.

Mahmoud Jamal's approach comes from more than a decade in the U.S. His teaching tools begin in the garden.

Mr. JAMAL: There's peach there. I have grown bell peppers. Here, that's our tropical area.

AMOS: And so you have fish for the kids?

Mr. JAMAL: They get something called Feeding the Fish Day. It's kind of like, everybody needs to eat something.

AMOS: Two hundred Palestinian children come to this school, many in pressed, blue uniforms.

Mr. JAMAL: A little, simple door.

(Soundbite of creaking door)

Mr. JAMAL: That's where they play.

AMOS: When Jamal steps out on this wide, green lawn trimmed with shade trees, he talks about his own education. He was a student in the late 1980s when education was disrupted during what is known as the first intifada. Part of the generation called the Children of the Stones, Jamal joined the uprising against the Israeli occupation - the intifada, in Arabic - challenging Israeli soldiers with sling shots.

Mr. JAMAL: I was one who went to school during the first uprising, participated in it, went to jail with it, and all that stuff.

AMOS: You did some jail time, in an Israeli jail?

Mr. JAMAL: Yes. Two years.

AMOS: For throwing stones?

Mr. JAMAL: A little more. We were the oldest in the generation of the intifada. The younger ones threw stones; we planned.

AMOS: His plan now is shaped by those violent times that changed his personal strategy for ending the occupation. After he got out of prison, Jamal spent more than a decade in the U.S., got a college degree at Berkeley. These days, when he picks up a stone, it's to build - first a factory, then a kindergarten; a music school is next.

Unlike most Palestinian schools, there is no politics or religion of any kind in these classrooms.

Mr. JAMAL: We don't preach any specific ideology.

AMOS: No Palestine, no...

Mr. JAMAL: No. Nothing. Just be a kid.

AMOS: He wants to change how Palestinians and Israelis think about each other, remembering a conversation he overheard more than 30 years ago.

Mr. JAMAL: A Jewish lady with her little kid - is asking her, is he Arab? She said, yes. And then he said, how come he's not killing me? She said, because you're with Mommy. I'm not saying that our people do not do similar things. So to me, I mean, not to have a specific ideology - it's only a school that cares for the children to have their fair chance to be the kid that they are.

AMOS: This is Mahmoud Jamal's own, personal uprising, based on the lessons he learned from the failures of his generation.

Mr. JAMAL: So I mean, you cannot just stop and wait. We learned that life has to go on. We don't give up easy. We don't give up, period. Kids will still have to learn.

AMOS: Education must go on, he says. Failure or success in the peace process plays no part in his plan.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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