In The Gaza Strip, The School Year Gets Off To A Rocky Start : Parallels Palestinian kids in Gaza went back to school this past week in buildings damaged by the war, with children homeless and traumatized, and more than the usual overcrowding they face every year.
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In The Gaza Strip, The School Year Gets Off To A Rocky Start

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In The Gaza Strip, The School Year Gets Off To A Rocky Start

In The Gaza Strip, The School Year Gets Off To A Rocky Start

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Half a million children returned to school last week in Gaza. They were going back to class after living through a summer of warfare. Israel, you'll recall, is fighting the militant group Hamas. And in that fighting, scores of school buildings were damaged. Some schools that remain are sheltering families who lost their homes. NPR's Emily Harris went to school.

(STUDENTS SHOUTING)

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Grade school girls shout on the playground of Al-Zaitoun Primary School in Gaza City. They're following the lead of adults trained in play therapy. This year, in most of Gaza, there were no academics the first week of school. Instead, it was five days of music, painting, drama and here, shouting loud. The louder the better, says one play therapist. Another, Mohmmad Kahloot, says when he sees kids smile, he feels hope.

MOHMMAD KAHLOOT: (Through translator) When they overcome such a catastrophe and smile, this gives us relief, just like seeing our own friends and laughing together. This gives us hope for tomorrow.

HARRIS: After seven weeks of death, damage and displacement here, even the therapists need therapy. The first week of school support, mostly paid for with U.N. funds, included programs for parents too. More than 40 women crowded into a classroom to hear a psychologist open a session called We Are OK In Gaza.

(Speaking foreign language.)

HARRIS: She asked them to share their experiences of this most recent war.

(Speaking foreign language.)

HARRIS: One mother began by praising God and Palestinian solidarity. Then she described how she held her fears silent whenever her older son left the house during the war.

(Speaking foreign language.)

HARRIS: Another mother said her fourth grade daughter has started sucking her thumb, wetting the bed and won't go to sleep without someone holding her. In a high school courtyard, there's no talk of bedwetting. Teenage girls giggled and chatted before classes began. Sophomore Wala'a Abdelkas wore a big pink plastic watch along with her school uniform of a long-sleeved dark coat and white headscarf. Wala'a said she enjoyed painting and playing the first week of school, although it was difficult, she said, to come back to school without her sister Isma. Just one year younger than Wala'a, she was killed when a neighbor's house was killed was hit with explosives.

WALA'A: (Through translator) We were like twins. We spent all our time together, quarrelling usually and talking. Now I don't really have anyone to talk to. I miss her.

HARRIS: Still, she and the girls grouped around her say they're used to wars. They say pretty soon things will seem just like always. But they don't know when they'll be able to go back to their own school. That building was destroyed, so these teens have been assigned to the afternoon shift in a different neighborhood. Even before the war, classroom shortages meant that two-thirds of schools in Gaza ran on four hour shifts. Now with even fewer buildings available, the Deputy Minister of Education says 90 percent of schools are doubling up. Classrooms are more crowded, with as many as 50, or sometimes 60 students, principals say. And some schools are still sheltering people who lost their homes. Yusef al-Masri, a laborer with two wives and nine children, moved the tarp covering a pile of concrete rubble in the middle of the classroom where his family was living last week. Tarps covered the missing back wall too. All the windows in this room were broken. He and another two dozen extended family members said they were moved here because the U.N. needed to use for students the school where they had been living. The U.N. has been consolidating shelters where more than 50,000 displaced people are still staying. U.N. agencies are offering families cash subsidies to rent new homes. But here, Maha al-Masri said her family had not yet gotten that kind of help. She was deeply frustrated.

YUSEF AL-MASRI: (Through translator) We understand that children have the right to start the school year, but we have a right to shelter too.

HARRIS: Facing an uncertain living situation and - these parents said - no money for transportation or supplies, the children in this family did not attend the first week of school. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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