Like schools in western countries, those in the Holy Land must cope with outmoded teaching methods and materials, as well with as distractions like the internet and cell phones, but Palestinian schools are also burdened by shabby facilities and poorly trained teachers, according to USAID’s Kort.
While lamenting the inadequacies of schools in Palestine, Kort also pointed to some notable successes: there are now about the same number of girls as boys in those schools, and the overall literacy rate in Palestine has increased from 88% to 94% in the last 14 years. Assistance from foreign governments, as well as from organizations like the Soros Foundation and HCEF, are making a positive impact on Palestinian education, Kort said.
Kort stressed that Christian schools in the Holy Land serve as "a bridge to empowerment and peace," because they bring Christian and Muslim children together. Over half of the children in the Christian schools are Muslim, he reported.
Parma, who works as an educational psychologist in Texas, told the conference that many Palestinian children suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and/or separation anxiety, which makes it very difficult for them to learn, or even leave their homes to get to school.
Parma has designed and led seminars for teachers of Palestinian children. Some of these programs have been held at HCEF's Ecumenical Center for Research and Development in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem University, founded in 1983 by members of the religious order known as Brothers of the Christian Schools, now has an enrolment of 2,936, of whom about 65% are Muslim, according to Br. Curran, an American now serving as the university's Vice President for Development.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing most of the university's students is just getting to the school, Brother Jack reported. The majority of the students live outside of Bethlehem, and every day they face delays at Israeli military roadblocks and checkpoints. The university has been closed nine times by the Israeli military for alleged "reasons of security." Another problem is medical: BU students, like the Palestinian population generally, have unusually high rates of hearing loss and breast cancer. The university is studying the causes of, and treatments for, those problems.
Br. Curran sees Bethlehem University as one of the places where a future of peace and harmony for Palestine may be built: "Our Christian and Muslim students study Christianity and Islam together, in the same classes at the same time. It's not always easy, but it's one of the best things we can do to build understanding, respect and peace," he stated.