Prof. Mohan B. Menon, educationist, heads the Unesco education project for nearly half a million displaced children among the Palestine refugees. He tells Priyadershini S. about the many challenges they face

A school is blown up. Several children are dead. Shock and awe rip the community apart. Anger rises. Retaliation is planned. Surviving children are scarred for life and yet the school has to reopen, classes have to go on and life brought back to norm al.

It is under these circumstances that Prof. Mohan B. Menon, Acting Director and Chief, Education and Planning Division of UNRWA (United Nations Relief And Works Agency For Palestine Refugees In The Near East), a Unesco project works. It is an abnormal situation that he has to deal with in his long career in the field of education across the globe.

700 schools

“It is a challenging job here. The main focus along with education is on safety,” he says explaining that the project has 700 schools, imparting education to nearly half a million displaced children, with over 17,000 teachers and is spread in five regions in West Asia: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is the latter two that face the most volatile conditions. Schooling in war zone throw up problems that need different handling and Prof. Menon says that the most difficult issue is that of recovery, a term used to bring back kids in the fold of schooling after long disruptions. “There is a good chance that they fall into wrong hands, start identifying with a violent cause and lose the whole plot of education and value system.

Psychological problems

Besides, recovery comes with a whole lot of psychological scars among children that need special treatment. “Imagine having to deal with a child who has lost his friend in an attack for which he sees no reason,” says the Professor. The Palestinians, he says are doing well in Jordan but have certain job restrictions in Syria and no citizen status in Lebanon. It is in West Bank and Gaza Strip, though under, OPT, Occupied Palestine Territory that they bear the brunt of continuous war.

This year marks 60 years of the project’s existence and Prof. Menon believes that their success will be to wean themselves out, the 200 UN staff, and for the Palestinians to independently organise their education system. But no answers seem possible as a political solution is required.

The challenges of recruiting the right teaching and school staff is high as Hamas supporters can filter through. Transporting text books and even paper across the border to West Bank and Gaza Strip is difficult. Apart from the searches that have to be gone through, only small packets of books are allowed and no cartons! Paper is not allowed at times under pretext of being inflammable! Anytime there is a possibility of war and transportation of material is stopped abruptly. “It is quite like our Kerala bandh, unpredictable,” he says laughing and harking back to his Malayali roots.

Having studied in Palakkad and Thrissur and moving on to MS University, Baroda, Menon has served at the Commonwealth of Learning and worked in education in Sub Saharan Africa.

African schools threw up issues absolutely different from the ones he faces presently. Extreme poverty, illiteracy and AIDS rattle education in Africa. In 2005, he recalls shocking statistics of a teacher dying a day from AIDS in the schools under his purview. “That is not the case in Palestine. In fact the literacy rate is high. We have 10 VTCs or Vocational Training Centres with placement cells. We have Faculty of Educational Science, which is pre teacher’s training. And though special schools are not there, there is a need to address disability, which as of now is addressed by a referral centre, under the health sector.”

Menon elucidates that there are male teachers in the boys’ schools and women for the girls but there is no gender discrimination. Women’s education is encouraged and the biggest success story he sees amidst the strife torn lives is the motivation of the Palestinian people. “They are a tenacious lot and they know that education is the only way out of the mess.”

Being an educationist and having worked in India as Chairman of National Open Schooling, after serving in many other capacities here he believes that the recent changes, like the introduction of grading system in Class X or the semester system in Kerala colleges should be debated more, the teaching faculty geared up for it before implementation. But he is all for the grade system.

Regulatory systems

Ideally Prof. Menon would like to do away with accrediting agencies and put in place internal quality assurances and regulatory systems in colleges and institutes that will ensure a higher quality of education by the institute itself.

Coming back to his present challenge, he says the success of their project is in closing it down. Prof. Menon, who carries a security radio and has undergone security training to work in the war zone, says that the only solution to the problem, away from the distant political one, lies in education, something that makes no distinction between an Israeli or a Palestinian child.