Rawdat Al Zuhur in occupied Jerusalem has a unique and heart-warming story behind it. It was established in 1952 in response to a pressing need to work with destitute women and girls, who were begging on the streets to earn a living. “Ms Nasir”, as she was known to the community, spotted two such little girls on a cold, stormy February day. As a professional social worker, she could not but give them a lift to their home. But to her distress, she realised that their home was merely a hovel with a torn sack cloth on the floor, where a sick mother and a blind father were shivering from cold, and waiting for the girls to provide them with whatever charity they could collect on that day. It was at that moment that Ms Nasir made it her mission to provide shelter to destitute girls, and give them some basic literacy and skills so that they could earn a living and uphold their dignity. This was the beginning of Rawdat Al Zuhur, meaning “Garden of Flowers”. She wanted a name to reflect the spirit of the place without stigmatising the destitute. And with the first 20 girls, the home became a real garden of happy girls blooming like flowers and radiating with joy and love that she provided them with the help of music and dancing.
After the Israeli occupation in 1967 Rawdat Al Zuhur had to address an urgent need for Arab schools, since all the government schools came under the control of the occupation authorities. An elementary school, from kindergarten through to Grade VI, evolved to cater for children (girls and boys) who came from low-income families. Ms Nasir then turned to expanding the mission of Rawdat Al Zuhur so as to provide for those children quality education that focused on good citizenship, with the same founding spirit of loving care and safety. With the limited space the school had, it could never cater to more than 230-250 children. This is why it has such a long waiting list.
Over and above the Palestinian curriculum, children are given the opportunity to use the library, the science laboratory, the computer lab and enjoy other activities such as field trips, physical training, music, art, drama and folk-dancing (Dabke). The children are encouraged to volunteer at special institutions either for the elderly or those with special needs, and they participate in community-oriented projects.
Samer, one of the graduates who started viola with the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music while he was still in school, is now part of the Palestine Youth Orchestra and the Palestine Strings, which performed at the Promps in Albert Hall in London last summer. While still at school in 2004, two girls, Wa’ed and Tamam, were chosen to join 60 other children from other schools to perform in the first Palestinian musical, “Fawanees”, based on the “The Little Lantern” by Ghassan Kanafani. The musical was composed and produced by Suhail Khoury, the general director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.
One of the guests at the school described Rawdat Al Zuhur as an oasis amid the violence and injustice of the occupation. Another friend, the late Lois Glock, who often volunteered her services, wrote after she left the country: “When I get pessimistic and worried about the condition of Palestine and [occupied] Jerusalem Palestinians, I find thinking of Rawdat Al Zuhur as a message of the strong heartbeat still continuing there. Life will continue and flourish for you all in your homeland. It is sustained not by might, not by power, but by spirit — and you are the keepers and nourishers of that spirit.” The graduates all over the country are a living testimony of that spirit as they continue to abide by the ethical values that were instilled in them at the school.
A special handmade Tree of Values stands at the landing of the staircase. And at the beginning of every school year, the children themselves are encouraged to add new sprigs. Remembering those values makes them stand out wherever they go. The people who used the car park that was run by one of the school’s graduates, Mohammad, said that he stood out for being specially cordial and kind to the customers, and very different from other attendants.
Graduates of Rawdat Al Zuhur are found in every field. I had pleasant encounters with a couple of them: Wissam, a lawyer, whom I did not recognise until he introduced himself, helped me get a paper for an official transaction, and the other, a doctor named Karim, happened to be at the hospital when I was admitted following an emergency. He asked the doctor in charge to take good care of me.
Karim has special memories of the school: “Maybe I spent more years at Rawdat Al Zuhur than any of its other graduates as I started at 2 months old when I used to accompany my mum who taught Arabic at the school. Eventually I was old enough to enrol in the preschool for two years followed by the six years of elementary education. Psychologists say that the personality of a child develops between the ages of 3 to 5, and I am so grateful that during that age I was a student at Rawdat Al Zuhur. Our teachers were dedicated and they emphasised the importance of moral values and civics, which stayed with us and has become part of us in our further studies and in our professional work.”
Mazen, who continues to run errands for the school, is the general secretary at the French Institute, and Jamil is the maintenance man at the Belgium Consulate. Mazen believes Rawdat Al Zuhur is about giving. “It is a whole world for me of giving without ever thinking of taking. It gave us love, dignity, quality education, civics and appreciation of art, and music, and treated us all the same. I could not think of a better school for my daughters ... [they are] enrolled now at Rawdat Al Zuhur.”
During his visit to one of the schools in occupied Jerusalem, the director of the continuing education at Birzeit University was emphasising to the teachers the importance of promoting reading among the students. One of the teachers responded proudly that he owed his appreciation and joy of reading to his first school, Rawdat Al Zuhur, where they were encouraged to use the library and discuss books they had read. Another young girl described the school as a place with open doors and windows while expressing how easy it was to have access to their teachers and school principal when they needed help or counselling.
After 30 years of living in Bethlehem and not having access to occupied Jerusalem, one of the early graduates got a permit to visit the city, and used it basically to visit the school with her daughter, and to express how much she owed the school and what fond memories she had of it.
Yacoub Odeh, one of the parents whose three children graduated from the school, had heard so much about this garden of flowers that he could “even smell the beauty of the place” before enrolling his twins and later his third daughter in its kindergarten. They grew up in the school and loved it, and loved their teachers and principal. Odeh said: “As parents we were always able to visit, and the built-in relationship between the home and school was part of the school system, which gave us an opportunity to get involved. Our suggestions were always welcome and we in turn cooperated to solve any problems pertaining to our children. We felt there were no barriers in the school and appreciated the emphasis on the character building and the involvement of our children in a variety of activities that developed their talents and personalities. And despite the difficult times for institutions in [occupied] Jerusalem, Rawdat Al Zuhur has been able to maintain its educational integrity, identity and transparency. It continues to serve the [occupied] Jerusalem community, especially the lower-income and poor families. As lawyer, dentist and social worker, my three children, Nasir, Bayan and Lamis, are a living testimony to Rawdat Al Zuhur.”
Because the school has been serving the lower-income community of occupied Jerusalem and its suburbs, the fees have been minimal compared to the cost of maintaining a child at the school. The principal once narrated the story of a father who came barging into the school to take his boy out, because he had received a reminder to pay the fees, and he could not pay. His son was waiting with tears running down his cheeks because he did not want to leave his school. His plight broke the heart of the principal and she took a decision on the spur of the moment to exempt the child of whatever fees he had to pay so that he could stay at school. The little boy could not hide his joy and simply ran towards the principal and gave her a big hug to express his gratitude.
In the meantime, Rawdat Al Zuhur was able to draw the attention and support of some donor organisations and friends from inside and outside the country, who helped in the establishment of an endowment fund in recognition of its founder, and a sponsorship programme too. The funds from the endowment were set as a compensation fund for teachers, and part of the interest was used to cover the deficit. However, due to the global financial crisis, interest as well as donations and sponsorship have been diminishing. And furthermore the new state regulations for the establishment of a provident fund for all employees forced the school to draw from the principal investment to cover the deficit. The pressure being exerted on the Palestinian government as well as international NGOs to keep their aid programmes out of occupied Jerusalem has been a great concern.
Samia Khoury has served as chair of the Rawdat Al Zuhur board for 17 years and is the head of the fundraising committee for the school.