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School Days in the West Bank
Yale Alumni Magazine
by Elizabeth (Andrews) Sanders '94 and Marthame Sanders '92
November, 2002

For a pair of alumni who are teaching at a Catholic school near Jenin, daily life includes encounters between school buses and Israeli tanks.

This August was the first time we had been back to New Haven since Elizabeth graduated. For those seeking nostalgia, late summer is the time to visit Yale. The hopeful anticipation of autumn is in the air, yet there aren't droves of shockingly young students to disabuse you of the notion that the campus is yours (or that you haven't aged since those shortest, gladdest years of life). We visited our old haunts -- having coffee at Atticus as we did on our first date, savoring slices at various pizza places, entering the breathtaking halls of Sterling Library, and most importantly, paying a visit to Silliman College, the heart of our Yale experience. We left New Haven longing for those crisp, hopeful "back to school" days of our past.

"Over the past two years, travel between (and even within) West Bank towns has grown increasingly difficult."
A few weeks later, we were jolted into the present, and a very different "back to school" atmosphere. For the past two years, we have been teaching at the Roman Catholic K-12 school in Zababdeh, a majority-Christian Palestinian village of 3,000 located six miles from Jenin in the northern West Bank. After a much-needed break from the stress of daily life here, we returned in time for the last teachers' meeting. Father Aktham, the parish priest and school principal, gathered the staff and spoke with us about the difficulties we would surely face this year. As a magnet school, we draw students and teachers from many surrounding cities and villages: Jenin, Tubas, Qabatia, Aqaba. Over the past two years, travel between (and even within) West Bank towns has grown increasingly difficult and at times impossible, even in relatively unrestricted areas such as ours. Father Aktham encouraged us to have patience with each other and our students, many of whom would probably miss a great deal of school this year.

We all knew what he meant: Last year, there was no school for an entire month due to road closures, military operations, and fear for students' security. Students from Jenin missed an additional month from incursions and curfews on their city. Several times students from other villages like Qabatia or Tubas would wake up in the morning and catch the bus, only to find a tank blocking their path -- a snow day without the snow. Occasionally, tanks would start taking formations on a road between Zababdeh and another town after school had begun. To keep the kids from being stranded by a road closure, the school's administrators would leap to action, taking kids from that town (often Jenin or Tubas) out of their classes and herding them onto their buses. When this happened, the two of us usually rode with them, our Palestinian colleagues holding the wishful assumption that our passports would render the bus bullet-proof. Nevertheless, we willingly went, calming the kids and knowing that an international presence reduces their odds for harassment or harm.

"The kids were anxious -- particularly the preschoolers, who hadn't seen their parents in a day and a half."
Early one Saturday afternoon last fall during Ramadan, several dozen Israeli tanks entered Jenin near the end of the school day, and our buses left not knowing what lay ahead. Before entering the city, they were stopped by soldiers in a distant tank. The bus driver backed up and phoned Father Aktham and the vice principal. They soon arrived to try and get the kids home. The buses re-approached the tanks, and as Father Aktham stepped down from the bus to speak with the soldiers, they fired several shots. They were warning shots, but they certainly terrorized the children, aged 5 to 18. These kids, fully aware of the scores of children killed in this conflict (some also on their way home from school), all screamed and hit the floor. The collective wisdom was not to try and re-enter Jenin, but to bring the children back to Zababdeh and re-group. By late afternoon they arrived back at the school, where dozens of families from Zababdeh and Qabatia were waiting to offer them homes for the night.

Father Aktham had contacted the Red Cross on Saturday afternoon, hoping they could convince the Israeli Army to allow the school buses to pass in a convoy with their jeep. Most of Sunday was spent waiting as the Red Cross made phone call after phone call to Israeli army officer after Israeli army officer. Nearly 24 hours into these negotiations, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus in Haifa. We felt more sorrow, frustration, and hopelessness at this news of more needlessly dead and wounded people, contributing to the cycle of violence that victimizes everyone. And as we pondered how to deal with 50 stranded schoolchildren and their anxious parents, we also knew no permission would come now.

For the Sanders' students, just getting home can be an adventure.
The day had worn long. The kids were anxious -- particularly the preschoolers, who hadn't seen their parents in a day and a half. Parents, too, were anxious. They were calling kids, kids were calling parents -- the proliferation of cellphones has democratized, if not anarchized, society here. Some of the Muslim kids -- our school is half Christian and half Muslim -- broke the Ramadan fast by eating before sundown. Only older kids fast like adults, and even for them there are exceptions for extenuating circumstances, and this certainly qualified.

Finally, our Red Cross negotiator got a "no" from his Israeli counterpart. Everyone wanted to try anyway, but he advised against it, fearing for the safety of the kids in case an Israeli military action was in the works. But since risk is part of everyday life here, the administration decided getting the kids home was the best idea. And so, in the dwindling
Elizabeth (Andrews) Sanders and Rev. Marthame Sanders are American Presbyterians living in the Palestinian village of Zababdeh. You can learn more about their work on their Web site.
"Out of the Blue" is an occasional column open to all members of the Yale community.
hours of daylight, we set off with one school bus, 50 kids, two Americans, one secretary, the vice principal, and a priest. Tanks stood at the entrance to Jenin, so we turned off the main road at the outskirts, heading up into the hills to wait for the taxis that we had arranged to meet there. It was a long 15 minutes. There was gunfire nearby and the tell-tale grind of a tank on the move, heading towards Jenin along the road we had just traveled. Soon after, we heard a loud noise of an approaching vehicle from the bottom of the hill. Expecting an army vehicle, we were relieved to see a vegetable truck. The taxis arrived (after they went to two or three erroneous hillcrests outside Jenin) and the kids started to pile in. Many of the little ones, remembering yesterday's trauma, were too scared to leave the bus, and so we and the older students helped them. Then they snuck off through the hills, eventually calling to us to announce their safe arrival.

We have just passed through a year full of such stories, a year in which getting to school is in itself a success. We face a year which will potentially be worse. And so we can't help but worry. We worry for the safety of our children on the roads, facing risk and uncertainty daily. We worry about their parents, who still believe enough in education to scrape together the money for private school in a time when West Bank unemployment has hit the 50 percent mark. We worry about people in other parts of this land, not as fortunate as us, who live in mourning for loved ones lost, who live in fear of bombs and rockets, and who live suffocating, forbidden to leave home day after day under curfew. And we worry about how the politics of the world will impact us locally. And yet, in this desolate atmosphere there still occasionally comes the exuberant optimism of youth -- the wide-eyed curiosity for life and learning. We keep kindled the hope that these children will satisfy that curiosity, that they will live to fulfill some of their dreams and be able to look back on their school days with at least a taste of sweet nostalgia.