Back to school in conflict zones: Lessons from Israel, Gaza, and Pakistan

What might American parents learn from parents facing danger at school in Israel, Gaza, Pakistan and Syria?

(AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
An Israeli student pulls his bag on his way to elementary school as he walks past policemen in the costal city of Ashkelon, Monday, Sep. 1, 2014. Thousands of children in southern Israel returned to school Monday after spending the summer vacation in bomb shelters taking cover from Palestinian rockets and mortars fired from Gaza during 50 days of war.

Thousands of Israeli children living near the Gaza Strip return to school this week. It's a return to normalcy and order that can be healing for parents and children. But thousands more in Gaza, Pakistan, and Syria still face devastation and danger which have delayed the start of school.

In light of what parents in those regions have to handle, as a parent in middle-class America, it gives me some perspective on fretting over my own family's back-to-school issues. It's easy to get into the mindset that there’s nothing in the world more important than what a child wears on the first day of school or how things are shaping-up with a new teacher. We tend to forget how blessed we are that those are our greatest concerns.

But because American schools have experienced shootings, terrorism and severe weather events, some parents here may have a point of reference when trying to imagine the fears of parents in other nations where war and political violence make it unsafe to send kids to school for weeks or months at a time.

Had it not been for my own experience in Israel as a reporter during the Gulf War in 1989, my four sons probably would have been raised in a state of parental captivity in a bunker in New Zealand. Even so, when we were living in New Jersey and there was an anthrax attack at our local post office substation, I wanted to keep my kids on lock down.

So, I was glad to see that thanks to the current Israeli-Hamas truce, Israeli parents are now able to send their kids back to school.

However, since I have friends in other areas plagued by unrest, it gave me pause when the same  Associated Press story noted that "schools in Gaza remained shuttered as the territory recovered from the fighting.” 

And as recently as Aug. 3, The New York Times published disturbing images of Syrian children being pulled from the wreckage of a UN school as the result of an Israeli missile (aimed to hit three members of Islamic Jihad nearby). 

Meanwhile, Agence France Press reported Sunday that “At least 42 children have been killed in government air strikes and shelling across Syria in the last 36 hours, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Sunday.”

In Islamabad, Pakistan, where a friend of mine is a school official, the return to school has been delayed for two weeks because the streets are unsafe due to violent anti-government protests

I will not name this school official for security reasons, but the official had some advice, via a Facebook chat, for US parents:

“I would tell parents in America to be grateful for the blessings you have and let your children grow with the realities of life. While there’s no war here, we have violent protests taking place. Parents here are worried about courses finishing and examinations. Education of their children is suffering, but its time our youth and we stand up for true democracy and the future of our next generations.”

In 1989, working as a freelance journalist in Tel Aviv during the height of Gulf War, I watched people in Israel parenting in a community under attack.

That experience stuck with me so powerfully it informs my parenting to this day.

It amazed me to see parents come out just hours after a SCUD missile attack and send young children off to school with their backpacks on one shoulder and a gas mask case slung over the other.  A Tel Aviv mom told me that parents can do more harm than good by cloistering a child during the safe times that come after a dangerous experience.

She told me that when I had children, someday, the best thing I could do for them would be to teach them to keep moving forward, through anxiety, tragedy, fear, and loss of any kind.

Children everywhere need to know that bad times have an end point.

Since then, I've tried to remember to give my children the freedom to embrace happiness when it’s present rather than making the parental choice to hover over them like a dark cloud ready to rain apprehension on what good may await them at school.

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