For everyone Palestine and Ukraine: Seeking strength in solidarity

Left to right: Olga Chabanuik, Saed Erziqat and Kateryna Maliuta-Osaulova. Photo: Darren Tindale

In a show of international solidarity, representatives from the major education unions in Palestine and Ukraine stood side by side with the AEU at this year’s AEU Federal Conference in late February, to share the plight of their members and students, and to express their hope for peace and stability in their regions.

Thanking the AEU for its support and solidarity, Saed Erziqat, Secretary of the General Union of Palestinian Teachers (GUPT), described the horrific conditions in Gaza, where education has ceased, some 22,000 teachers have lost their jobs, and more than 625,000 students have lost their right to education. 

According to the UN, almost 34,000 Palestinians have now been killed in Israeli attacks since 7 October – 30% of them children – with more than 76,000 wounded. Of these, “more than 5,826 students and 264 teachers have been killed, and 9,570 students and 960 teachers are trying to recover from their injuries,” Saed reported. 

“Of course, teachers care for the safety of their students, but now life in Gaza is about surviving and escaping death, which is very imminent.”

Saed Erziqat

In addition to the devastating human toll, Israeli bombing has completely or partially destroyed more than 286 government schools and 65 United Nations-run schools in Palestine.

“There is grave concern of real famine and hunger in Gaza,” Saed told AEU News, “especially after the Israeli occupation forces have targeted UNRWA, the only remaining functional international body operating in Gaza which is capable of delivering aid.”

While, initially, teachers tried to find ways to continue providing education for their students, now “the priority of our members is the safety of themselves and their families,” Saed said. “Of course, they care for the safety of their students, but now life in Gaza is about surviving and escaping death, which is very imminent.”

In the West Bank, where the GUPT’s main headquarters are located, 48 students have been killed and 450 injured by Israeli soldiers and settlers since 7 October; some 7,200 Palestinians have been arrested in the West Bank alone, Saed said. “If you express your views on Facebook, this is enough for you to be arrested. After October 7, the Israeli army … can get away with any level of atrocity – even the little accountability they had before is no longer operating.”

“From day one of the war, our union became united as never before.”

Olga Chabanuik

Speaking on the second anniversary of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Olga Chabanuik and Kateryna Maliuta-Osaulova, from the Trade Union of Educators and Science Workers (TUESW) of Ukraine, told the AEU Federal Conference that in two years, more than one in ten schools in their country has been damaged or destroyed.

“From the first day of full-scale invasion, the Russian Federation has been waging war against the sovereignty of our state and its future, including education. As of today, 3,800 education institutions have been destroyed in Ukraine, including 1,800 schools,” Olga said.

Principals, teachers, and ES stand in solidarity with local and international speakers at this year’s AEU Federal Conference. Photo: Darren Tindale

According to the official data, over the past two years at least 550 children have been killed and 1,172 children are missing, while more than 19,050 children have been forcibly displaced by the occupiers – though these figures could be much higher.

Some 67,000 children have lost one of their parents because of the war, while around 5,500 children have been orphaned.

Children under occupation or deported are subject to Russian state control, and Ukrainian teachers must teach all subjects in Russian, Olga said. “Teachers are forced to conduct lessons and educational activities in which the Russian invasion is justified. … The language, literature and history of Ukraine is excluded.”

The TUESW has focused on protecting and defending teachers and students. They have negotiated with the government to preserve salaries for those who have fled to other parts of Ukraine or left the country, some of whom are teaching online from abroad.

The union has also established educational hubs in western parts of Ukraine so students can continue to study. With the help of international partners, they have supplied generators to educational institutions in regions housing most of the country’s displaced students, and there are further plans to create shelters in Kiev that can provide face-to-face education.

From the first day of the war in February 2022, Olga said, their union members “become united as never before. We become one power that fought for our freedom, for our right to simple living in our independent country.”

“Ukrainians are fighting not only for Ukraine; they are fighting for democracy, for peace in Europe and the world.”

Kateryna Maliuta-Osaulova

All three international speakers shared harrowing stories about children who have been killed, trapped under rubble, kidnapped, and orphaned. Kateryna told the conference that she thought she would never again be able to sleep at night after a missile was shot down over her house, “realising that death was over the heads of my two kids”.

However, it has become such a common occurrence that she no longer wakes her children in the middle of the night to take refuge in the air-raid shelter when the siren sounds. Now, she just hopes her family members will all still be alive in the morning.

Kateryna also shared a story about Olga’s daughter, who was in an online lesson with her class when the children heard an explosion and one of the students disappeared from the screen. “He was in Kharkiv, 50 kilometres from the Russian border, and in the midst of the lesson, he died – their friend,” Kateryna said. “What is this if not genocide?”

Federal Education Minister John Clare met with union leaders from Palestine and Ukraine in February.

For Saed, the stories of teachers and friends in Gaza are horrifying. “When a father has to collect the remaining organs of his killed son or daughter in a bag… When you hear the crying of your child under the rubble, and you are helpless… When you see dead bodies on the street and nobody can approach them because of Israeli snipers… It’s just unimaginable.”

At the time of the conference, 70% of the infrastructure in Gaza had been partially or totally destroyed. “As we speak, there is a complete siege on Gaza, and blockade of aid,” Saed said. “People are eating the food of animals to survive.”

AEU Federal leadership travelled to Canberra with Saed, Olga and Kateryna for meetings with Education Minister Jason Clare, Greens leader Adam Bandt and other MPs, to speak about the plight of educators in Palestine and Ukraine, and to reiterate the rights of children everywhere to live in safety and to access education.

Kateryna and Olga thanked the Australian government and its people for their support of Ukraine. “Our countries may be geographically distant, but our common values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law unite us,” Kateryna said. “Ukrainians are fighting not only for Ukraine; they are fighting for democracy, for peace in Europe and in the whole world.”

Saed called upon the Australian government to stand by humanity and the rights of the Palestinian people and to engage internationally to stop the ongoing massacre in Gaza. “Killing and destruction will not create peace,” Saed said. “Our people love life and want to live in peace. All we want is the implementation of UN resolutions, international law and human rights law. Australia can achieve that through the recognition of the Palestinian state as a peaceful way of imposing pressure on Israel.”

“The children of Gaza need an immediate ceasefire.”

Saed Erziqat

The Israeli government has failed to take any of the “immediate and effective measures” ordered by the International Court of Justice in January to prevent genocide in Gaza and to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to enter the territory. According to the UN, 80% of all people facing famine or catastrophic hunger worldwide now reside in the Gaza Strip, marking an unparalleled humanitarian crisis. Saed spoke of his fears regarding Israel’s determination to pursue a full-scale ground offensive in Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians have taken shelter, at least half of them children. “The children in Gaza need an immediate ceasefire,” he said.

When asked how he maintains a sense of hope, Saed said: “We get hope from the people of the world and from the determination of our people. The people are driven by their conscience and values. Governments are ruled by their economic and political interests. That’s why we want to continue talking to unions, to civil society organisations – because we know that they believe in human rights.”

Education International (EI) continues to advocate for an end to the war between Israel and Hamas, the release of all hostages, and an end to indiscriminate violence. EI has repeatedly called for an immediate United Nations-enforced and guaranteed ceasefire, the establishment of humanitarian corridors to prevent further humanitarian catastrophe and loss of civilians, and genuine efforts towards sustainable peace. EI is also providing practical support, rebuilding a teacher training centre in Ukraine, and facilitating training on trauma-informed pedagogy for teachers in Palestine.

The AEU has always advocated for the rights of children and young people to be educated, live, and learn in environments that are healthy and safe, and free from oppression, including war. Recent events in the Middle East have again highlighted the critical importance of educating for peace. The AEU will continue to call for the Albanese government to advocate for a permanent ceasefire and an urgent peaceful solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

Read AEU Victorian’s resolution on ‘Educating for peace’ passed on 8 December 2023.

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