For everyone Helping hands, across the battle lines

Candlelight vigil in memory of lost civilians, Gaza, 25 May 2021. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/ISOPIX

Renewed conflict in the Gaza Strip has had a profound effect on education in the region. Through Education International and the AEU’s International Trust Fund, the union is doing what it can to help support teachers and children affected by the conflict, writes MYKE BARTLETT.

Few will have been unmoved by the images coming out of the Gaza Strip across 11 horrifying days in May. As Israel moved to crush insurgents in the wake of fresh terrorist attacks, the news was awash with stories of disproportionate destruction – collapsing tower blocks, brutal air raids and whole families wiped out overnight. In the latest count, Israeli airstrikes killed 248 civilians, including 58 children; while Hamas rockets killed 12 Israeli civilians, including two children. The impact on education in the Gaza Strip has been immense. According to Save the Children, in a single week, 50 schools in Gaza were damaged, affecting almost 42,000 children. Three further schools were damaged in Israel by rockets from Gaza.

While the AEU’s main focus will always be its members, it also works in partnership with our global union federation, Education International (EI), to campaign on behalf of teachers and public education across the globe. EI has condemned the destruction of schools as a result of conflict in the Middle East, leading dozens of school buildings to be converted from centres of learning into emergency shelters for displaced people.

AEU Federal secretary and Education International president Susan Hopgood says EI was quick to meet and discuss the best way of supporting teachers and students affected by the latest conflict. As a ceasefire was brokered, the committee made a statement advocating to world leaders on behalf of educators in the region.

“The statement was about recognising the impact the conflict has had on children, including the many killed,” Susan says. “While a ceasefire is critical to ending the violence between Israel and Hamas, it cannot lead to a lasting and permanent peace if the underlying causes of the violence remain unresolved.

“If we’re going to move on, beyond the ceasefire, the root causes of the situation have to be addressed. Part of our charter is around peace, so it’s important that we’re able to actually advocate to world leaders.”

The AEU’s International Trust Fund (ITF) is employed to improve the professional development of educators, to extend educational opportunities to all children across the globe, and to promote peace and cooperation. Often, this means supporting teachers and their unions in times of crisis.

“We want to ensure that the young people of this region can actually receive their education. We want to let children be children.”

“The fund isn’t really set up to provide humanitarian assistance,” Susan explains. “It’s about development, sustainability and assisting teacher organisations. But that’s not to say that we don’t, from time to time, provide emergency assistance when it’s required. We can’t rebuild schools, but we can be very clear to world governments that they have to work not only to rebuild, but to rebuild on a solid democratic and rights-respecting basis.”

The direct assistance that ITF – and Education International – can provide is often directed towards programs that meet the unique needs of educators in crisis.

“One of the leaders of the Palestinian early childhood union has said that what they desperately need is professional development for teachers so they can help students with post-traumatic stress. Having been through such trauma as a teacher, how do you then help young children work through this?”

Given peace and cooperation are such prominent objectives, it’s little surprise that EI has been meeting with teacher organisations from both sides of the conflict in Gaza, even if common ground can prove elusive.

“We have for a very long time tried to work with the unions from both sides to try and bring them together to talk about the issues and see what we can collectively agree. The divide is deep, but both sides are generally willing to at least give it a go and attempt to understand what the other side is saying.”

For Susan, the work Education International is doing in Gaza, supported by the AEU’s International Trust Fund, reflects its belief in the right of every child to access free, quality education. This simple commitment to education must not waver, even in the face of what can seem an impossibly complex and intractable conflict.

“We want to ensure that the young people of this region can actually receive their education. We want to let children be children. It’s very difficult, but we have a responsibility, and we take it very seriously.”

Visit aeufederal.org.au/our-work/international for more on the AEU’s International Trust Fund.

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