Gaza Strip – Farah Qanoua’s first day at school after the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza was a day she will not forget.
On July 23, 2014, 11-year-old Farah saw on the news that Shujayea‘s primary school, where she attended classes, had been hit by Israeli missiles. Still, what she observed on that first day back was beyond her expectations.
“The hateful bombs had showered debris everywhere I moved my eyes that day,” Farah told Al Jazeera, noting that the extent of the damage shook her long-established belief that the school was a safe place.
Her best friend, Qamar Hararh, had been eager for the school year to start again: “I was waiting for my school because it still can give me that sense that everything is going well and will be all right,” Qamar told Al Jazeera.
While the two friends were happy to see each other again after surviving the war, they have since had to adjust to their badly damaged learning environment. Many of the school’s walls collapsed during the war, and windows were smashed. Their classroom ceiling has gaping holes in it, the result of Israeli air strikes.
“It serves as a constant reminder of what we experienced, of the deadly escalation in hostilities during the last war,” school principal Zakia Abu Hamda told Al Jazeera.
She says she fears the students could be seriously harmed if chunks of concrete, hanging precariously from the ceilings of many classrooms, were to fall on them.
The Israeli onslaught on Gaza in the summer of 2014 claimed the lives of more than 2,200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to United Nations figures. Several education facilities came under heavy Israeli shelling, sustaining damage estimated to exceed $33.5m.
Ziad Thabet, an official in Gaza’s education ministry, told Al Jazeera that 187 government schools were damaged during the conflict, three of which were totally destroyed and cannot be used. Another 184 sustained some form of damage.
It serves as a constant reminder of what we experienced, of the deadly escalation in hostilities during the last war.
Rebuilding has not yet begun in many cases owing to Israeli restrictions on raw materials, including concrete, entering the Gaza Strip, Thabet said.
As a result, about 94 percent of Gaza’s schools have been operating on double-shifts, Thabet said: One group of students goes to class in the morning, while another group goes in the afternoon. Gaza would need to build 130 new schools to meet the local demand, he added.
Back in Shujayea, school secretary Nafeza Yousef told Al Jazeera that the destruction had left the school overstretched and unable to meet its students’ needs. “We had to give up virtually half of our students and place them in three other nearby schools,” she said.
Before the war, the school taught more than 750 students from the first to the sixth grades. Today, no more than 430 students from the fourth to the sixth grades can attend. At least nine teachers were transferred from the school because of the lower enrolment.
Yousef said the school lost eight classrooms, which were completely destroyed in the Israeli air strike. This forced them to cram more than 45 students in each classroom, compared with about 38 students per class previously.
The school’s administration building – which contained data about the students and their photos – was levelled and the science laboratory and library were also destroyed.
“Students have to rely only on their teacher’s theoretical explanation,” said Abu Hamda, the principal, about the lack of hands-on science education.
Computer teacher Muna Hassan also cited concerns about the lack of facilities. “Our lab is [now] used as a warehouse for the school, and the computers are broken,” she said.
The situation is even worse in winter months. During storms that struck Gaza last December and January, teachers draped plastic tarps over the broken walls and windows, “but they were no use”, Qamar said. The rain still dripped into the classrooms, and strong winds whipped inside the building.
Gaza’s education ministry does not have stable funding; it is typically supported by profits from school shops or international organisations such as UNICEF. Fawaz Mujahed, the Ramallah-based ministry’s head of the school building department, said most interior repairs to schools partially damaged during the war had been completed, but the wholly destroyed schools remained in ruins because of the Israeli restrictions.
“Qatar has pledged the needed funds to build four schools which are totally destroyed. We also have our plans to build 40 new schools in Gaza,” Mujahed said.
It is not only Gaza that suffers from the lack of funding, he added, but also the occupied West Bank, where more schools are urgently needed to help alleviate overcrowding.
The international community’s response to the education crisis has been “inadequate and ineffective”, Thabet said, noting pledged funds often fail to materialise in Gaza. The authorities in Gaza have also been unable to pay teachers’ salaries consistently.
“We are not fairly paid, but we continue to commit to our duties towards the [next] generations,” Waela Qumbez, a teacher at the school in Shujayea, told Al Jazeera as she prepared her next mathematics class.
Despite the many challenges, Gaza’s students still cling to education as a source of hope. Farah says she wants to become a dentist when she grows up.
“They want us to lose faith,” she said. “But we never will. We will strive to unlock our potentials and improve our future.”