As the students quietly file in for morning assembly at Al-Fadheelah School in Sana’a, Yemen, there is no indication of the trauma many of them have experienced, or of the innovative way that the school is helping the children deal with it.
As the students settle, five young female students step forward. “Boom… Boom…” one of them shouts as the other girls dive to the ground. Once the dust settles, one of the girls begins crying out while rolling on the ground as if in pain. Quickly her friends rise to their feet and start to calm her down. “You are ok, you are not hurt” the girls repeat as they comfort their classmate.
The dramatic scene ends, and the audience begins to laugh and clap. Sadly, the girls are acting out a scene all too familiar in Yemen. In the past year, the country has witnessed intense violence with many schools and hospitals attacked and hundreds of children killed or maimed.
“These performances are part of coping for the children”, says Mohammed El-fadil, the Director General of Education in Sana’a. “You can see them clapping and engaging as they watch the drama. Such activities help them temporarily forget about the war and concentrate on learning,” he added.
When re-enacted with friends and classmates, the drama at the school engages the students, allowing them to begin to process and move on from their experiences, even as the situation across Yemen remains perilous.
With support from UNICEF, Alfadheelah School has been able to reopen, but more than 1,600 schools remain closed due to the conflict, many damaged or destroyed in the violence.
Walking through the school, Mr El-fadil points out the shards of broken glass and rubble strewn on the ground, where the students would usually play.
“When we first came to assess the damage there was a lot of broken glass and other dangers for the students,” Mr El-fadil said.
With support from UNICEF, the school has begun mending damage; fixing broken windows and working to help the school become a safe environment for the students and teachers once again.
For the teachers, it is incredibly important to bring back a sense of normalcy for the children. Following the assembly, the children return to their classrooms for lessons before heading out into the school yard. Here they play games including volleyball, hula-hooping and skipping rope. As the children play outside it is hard to imagine the trauma many of them have experienced.
Ghadeer, 13, says she finds it difficult to concentrate in class with the sounds of bombs and gunshots.
“Sometimes in the middle of a lesson, you hear a boom,” “What can you expect?” she says, pausing briefly, “some students scream, others run out of the classroom.”
Since the March escalation in the conflict in Yemen, over 3,500 schools have been forced to close, interrupting the education of over 1.8 million children, Despite some improvement, almost 390,000 children are still being deprived of their right to an education.
Ghadeer says she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Although this conflict has disrupted her education, she says it’s more important than ever that she fulfils this ambitious dream. “I want to treat all the people whether injured or sick,” she says. “Each child in the school has a plan for the future and that is why those of us alive keep coming to school,” she adds. “Even in despair, our hope for a bright future will always remain.”
In addition to helping rebuild and rehabilitate schools across Yemen, UNICEF is training teachers and students to help children cope with the horrors of the conflict. Simple activities such as the assembly at Al-Fadheelah, can provide children with means to begin to process their experiences. Schools also can and should provide children with a safe space to learn, play and just be a child.
As Ghadeer proves, even in the most difficult circumstances, children in Yemen are not giving up on their dreams and aspirations. And UNICEF is doing everything possible to provide the children of Yemen with an education and the chance of a brighter future.
To find out more about UNICEF’s work for the children of Yemen visit: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/yemen.html
Bismarck Swangin is a Communication Specialist in the Amman, Jordan office of UNICEF.