The Zahrat Al-Yasmeen Kindergarten in Aida Camp in Bethlehem has been many years in gestation. 1 “Yasmeen,” the kindergarten, will be “born” and accepting the first class of students in September 2021. This story is for Yasmeen for her birthday. It is dedicated to the memory of Salah Ajarma, cofounder and director of the Lajee Center and inspiration for the Zahrat Al-Yasmeen Kindergarten.
Let this be the beginning of your generation myth. You have many parents and I am only one, so I’ll give you my small part of the story. Others will be able to add and embellish.
There are three strands to this account: the personal, the political, and the pedagogical. My personal story is the thinnest of the three. The other, thicker strands establish your political grounding and what we might call your philosophical inheritance.
I graduated from kindergarten in 1950. My school was in the basement of a house in London and my teacher was Mrs. Hartley. I received an embroidered satchel as a graduation present.
Bethlehem is your birthplace, too, Yasmeen. So I’ll tell you something about it, the little that I know.
At Christmastime, our teacher told us the Bible story about Jesus being born, and we sang about the little town of Bethlehem, though we had no idea where that was. I never thought to ask why, if Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he is called Jesus of Nazareth? Now I know that Nazareth is in the north of his parents’ country, where they were Jewish residents in an occupied Palestine. The imperial power, the Romans, ordered Joseph and Mary to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census and get taxed. The carpenter and his pregnant wife had to journey 90 miles. It probably took a little over a week, he walking, she riding on a donkey. Today, in a car, it would take two hours in a straight run — but what with the separation wall, military outposts, checkpoints, and all that, according to Google it would take seven-and-a-half hours or more.
Why am I telling you this? I became an architect in the early 1970s. Perhaps, like Frank Lloyd Wright, I was influenced by the Froebel blocks our kindergarten teacher gave us to play with. 2 In 2018, I was invited by a friend of mine in Boston, Nidal, to visit him in the refugee camp where he grew up, in Bethlehem. 3 This is your birthplace too, Yasmeen. So I’ll tell you something about it, the little that I know.
Aida Camp and the immediately adjoining Al-Azzeh Camp, in Bethlehem, have a combined population exceeding 8,000. Aida was the name of a woman who in 1948 — at the time of the Nakba, the “catastrophe” — ran a popular café on the Hebron Road. Aida was so well-known that the camp was named for her. It helps that “aida” is closely related to the verb “to return” in Arabic (عايدة ‘ayda means “the returning woman”).
Families came to Aida Camp from 27 destroyed villages, whose names are commemorated on street murals in the camp.
The modern history of Palestine begins toward the end of World War I, with the British Mandate. 4 My own parents were in elementary school then. In 1948, after World War II, when the full horror of the Nazi genocide against Jews had been revealed and the state of Israel was being established, I was entering kindergarten in the garden level of a London house. In the war that followed, 531 Palestinian villages were destroyed or overrun, and about 750,000 Palestinians were made refugees, scattered throughout the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Now, at the time of your birthday, Yasmeen, 68 refugee camps remain, home to 5.7 million refugees. 2
The Nakba, too, remains vivid in the memories of those still living in the camps, and in the minds of their children and grandchildren who learn stories from their elders, the eyewitnesses, people my own age. The great- and great-great-grandchildren of those survivors will be amongst your first classmates, Yasmeen. 6
Families came to Aida Camp from 27 of the destroyed villages, whose names are commemorated on street murals in the camp itself. In the beginning, Aida was a cluster of tents, each a single guy rope’s distance from the next. In time, as it became clear that “return” might not be imminent, loss of faith in the future and hopeless yearning for the past gave way to pragmatism in the moment: stone blocks replaced canvas, and a densely packed village grew up. Many of the houses now stand three or four stories high. A gate in the shape of a giant keyhole, topped by a giant key, marks the camp’s entrance, a symbol of the homes from which those who live here now were once expelled. As at the entrance, on exterior walls and in almost every living room are images of keys, each the symbol of a house to which a family dreams of returning — even though, in reality, many of those homes have long since been destroyed. The year 1948 was as traumatic to the Palestinian people as the German bombing of Guernica had been to the Basques only eleven years before.
There is no public green space, no buildable space, no open space at all inside Aida Camp. 7 The streets are the public space, and only a few of these can accommodate a vehicle.
Nidal tells me that when he was a kid and the army was moving through the neighborhood, he and his buddies would take to the roof tops and leap from one building to another to escape. When the entire camp was under curfew and no one was allowed on the street, they got to school this way. 8
The Lajee Center
The Lajee Center (lājiʾ, لاجئ, means “refugee”) is located just outside Aida Camp, beside the lock-shaped gate with its giant key. At the other end of this street, about 100 meters away, stands an Israeli military installation enclosed behind steel shutters. Tanks, jeeps, combat vehicles, and soldiers in full gear can appear without notice, with or without provocation, to establish “order.” Aida Camp is the most heavily teargassed place on the planet. 9
The Lajee Center building is three stories tall, two above street grade and one, a former garage, at “garden” grade below. There are 270 square meters per floor, for a total of just over 800 square meters, and a flat roof that is planted with vegetables.
Behind and adjacent to the Lajee Center, also officially outside the camp, there is some open space as well as a playground and football pitch belonging to the Center. A decent place to play soccer is so rare that even kids from East Jerusalem come to play here — if they can get past the checkpoints.
A decent place to play is so rare that even kids from East Jerusalem come here — if they can get past the checkpoints.
On our visit in November 2018, Lajee’s volunteer director, Salah, introduced my wife Nancy and me to young people playing music and dancing on the building’s second floor. Shatha showed us the roof-garden project, which spreads over more than 40 other rooftops as well, all part of a food-sovereignty program that she has established as director of the Environmental Unit at the center. Nancy and I accompanied Ashgan, Rama, Sara, Maryam, and other community-health workers on visits to people’s homes, where they focus on mitigating the high incidence of diabetes and hypertension in the population. I noticed as we called from house to house that, in addition to the keys to homes lost but not forgotten, families often display images of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, loved ones who have been shot dead or are in prison. Twice a week, a health worker visits to make sure the right meds are being taken, or that a ride to the clinic has been arranged. But the most important part of any check-up is the conversation, asking after the one who is missing, providing support for the mother who is grieving. 10
Salah asked me what I thought about installing a kindergarten in the basement of the Lajee Center, in the unfinished garage. Mahmoud, another health worker, helped me to take overall measurements, and that night I made a sketch that showed how, even with some columns in the way, it might indeed be possible to accommodate two classrooms with some ancillary space. The adjacent open yard would provide an excellent complement. Beyond that are the existing playground and football pitch.
Salah asked if I could design the kindergarten as I had sketched it. I could, I said.
Salah and I went to see three local kindergartens to give me a better idea of what was currently available to residents. Two were inside the camp — one a religious organization run by the local mosque, and the other not much more than a modest childcare center (since closed). The third kindergarten was part of a larger school complex in Bethlehem, run by Lasalle Frères, a Catholic educational mission based in Rome. 11 Impressive, clearly well-run and resourced, this kindergarten also commanded relatively high fees, out of reach for most families in Aida Camp.
Emboldened by what we had seen, Salah asked if I could design the kindergarten as I had sketched it. I could, I said. But what had to be done first was to figure out why the Lajee Center would want to embark on a relatively costly project; what sort of education they wanted to provide; and whether the community would support their plans.
Answering the Questions
What pedagogical visions did your planners conceive, Yasmeen? The following summer, in 2019, we assembled a small group of American and Palestinian teachers and community leaders to hold an eight-day workshop at Lajee to think this through. 12 We visited parents in the camp. We toured more schools, and we invited experts to come talk to us. We listened to people’s stories. Gradually, we developed a direction.
A key reference for our discussions was an approach developed in the aftermath of World War II in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, where a local teacher and a group of activist mothers faced destroyed buildings, mountains of rubble, and pervasive poverty. 13 A basic idea emerged: The child, the teacher, and the parents are all participants in an exploration of the world. The surrounding environment, in whatever shape it may take — urban or rural, fully functional or in ruins — is the medium in which a child lives and learns. An approach was conceived that would help children to comprehend the calamitous scene that surrounded them. The idea that “a child has one hundred languages,” central to the Reggio Emilia Approach, recognizes a wide range of types of intelligence, modes of self-expression, and ways of responding to things and people outside the child’s own being. 14 In one of our discussions, it was pointed out that the youngest child on her first day at school already comes with a bundle of experiences; she has felt hot and cold, loud and quiet, rough and smooth, and also safety and danger. It is these experiences that the teacher must first perceive, and then build on for the child’s education.
The immediate environment, in whatever shape it may take — urban or rural, fully functional or in ruins — is the medium in which a child lives and learns.
An essential characteristic of Reggio Emilia and other theories we discussed during those eight days is that these educators emphasize the active role of the child in his or her own formation. 15 In one way or another — through games, work, exploration, and engagement with the environment — the child’s agency is recognized and encouraged. The child is a subject, acting upon the world, not an object being acted upon. No longer is the student viewed as a pitcher into which knowledge is poured in didactic fashion. Instead, with guidance and support, a child can become the author of her cognitive and social engagement with her surroundings, including the people in it.
During our discussions, we were visited by Snežana, a Serbian early-childhood teacher who had founded kindergartens in Serbia and Bosnia after the Yugoslav war of the 1990s. Snežana is familiar with Aida Camp and many other camps across the region. Her experiences in Serbia (and later in Sarajevo) were in many respects congruent with the situation in Palestine, where children undergo continuing and cumulative trauma. In her experience, the aim in nurturing a child should not necessarily be to “heal” but rather to cope, to help a child understand that even if she cannot change the world in which she lives, she can change the way she feels about it. At the end of the workshop, the responsibility for presenting these ideas (in Arabic) to local community leaders lay with our young Palestinian team members. They were empowered and they aced it.
“Work of Each for Weal of All”
Here I will tell you, Yasmeen, a little more about myself. Our kindergarten teacher in the London house taught us how to draw what was in our heads, to work with scissors, to “cut and paste” when that had a literal meaning, and we made collages. We grew beans in jam jars and collected acorns. Kindergarten seemed like a home away from home. Mrs. Hartley was a Montessori teacher.
At the age of nine, I was sent off to boarding school by my parents. The pedagogy at this school was also progressive, based on developing head, hand, and heart — a philosophy of intellectual pursuit, of skill in arts and crafts, of valuing the communal. The ethos of these schools has stuck with me, despite the critical proddings I have given it over the years. The motto of my boarding school was “Work of Each for Weal of All” — a serviceable paraphrase of the celebrated aphorism “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” 16
Seeds of a New Society
Which brings me, briefly, to another project in which I was a participant as an architect in the early 1980s, setting up a new system of six high schools across the larger islands of the Seychelles, an archipelago of over 100 islands in the Indian Ocean. The idea of the socialist government was to reformulate their existing system for secondary education, based on testing and grading, which had been inherited from the British. Students were on the whole good at passing exams and a few made their way overseas to university. But other graduates looked forward to lives either in bureaucracy or the service industry (the lucky ones), or to underemployment and a return to subsistence farming and fishing.
The aim of the new policy was to develop a core curriculum of language, math, and science, and to offer electives in practical subjects such as agriculture (including hydroponics), fishing, and aquaculture; communications (newspaper, radio, video); and design and construction. The schools were developed from the ground up. A pilot summer camp in each of the disciplines was hosted in 1980, and students were asked for their responses. Classroom design was taught by making models, and plans were subject to student review. Work squads of students, girls and boys together, participated in the construction of the schools under the guidance of tradesmen from the Ministry of Works. Weekly reports and recordings of oral histories from the old folks were made by students in Seychellois kreol, a language hitherto forbidden in school, and broadcast on national radio. The first of the schools opened in 1981 — with the presidents of two countries in attendance at the ceremony. 17
In these schools, a new way of learning was to be developed; in this curriculum, the seeds of a new society were sown.
At the core of this new approach, the overturning of a colonialist curriculum, were learning by doing, encouraging collective agency, technical and economic empowerment, and above all cultural self-confidence. In these schools, a new way of learning and a new way of living were to be developed; in this curriculum, comprehensive in its scope, the seeds of a new society were sown. This group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds studying 40 years ago on far-flung islands in the Indian Ocean might seem to have quite different needs and aspirations from those of kindergartners in a refugee camp in Palestine in 2021. Yet their common imperative, the need for individual and collective self-determination, is essential to an educational practice of liberation.
A Palestinian Pedagogy
The principle introduced by Snežana in our summer workshop was teaching a child to “cope.” In a more recent session with teachers, Snežana amplified the point by reminding us that to avoid the helplessness that leads to hopelessness, one has to speak the truth. “You have to name injustice,” she said. To answer the question “what can I do?” one can reply, “I can speak. I can call something by the right name.” 18 Outlets for such expression are words, art, music, drama, and play, an approach later reinforced in teacher-training sessions led by Khitam, a pedagogical animatrice who works with teachers throughout the West Bank. 19 After a recent meeting with the teachers, Khitam emailed me to say, “Such a great feeling to be in such a wonderful environment … we practiced and conducted different kinds [of] dance and movement activities in addition to drama and puppet theater exercises … the teachers acted, reacted, participated, and got involved in all, very creatively and beautifully.”
The mission statement synthesizes principles formed by educators as many as 200 years ago — but developed through experience, for the Palestinian situation.
This is a philosophy that leaps over the boundaries of conventional language to employ art (and music and drama) to meet the world as it is, creating in a kindergarten a place of love and nourishment as the only viable response to the repression, anger, and burnout generated outside.20 Helping a child to name the manifold injustices of Occupation is a way of creating a safe haven. In the Jasmine Flower Kindergarten (zahrat al-yasmeen, روضة زهرة الياسمين means “jasmine flower”), the seeds of a new society can grow and flourish. Even the fences around the playground are planted with jasmine vines.
The mission statement that emerged from these discussions reads like a synthesis of principles formed by educators from as many as 200 years ago (going back to the work of Friedrich Froebel) — but developed through direct experience, and crafted for the Palestinian situation:
The Lajee Kindergarten is a safe and secure place in which children learn about their world in a loving and nurturing environment.
Teachers will guide and support children to achieve academic, social, and creative competencies with a comprehensive program centered on nature, art, drama, and music.
This last statement positions the kindergarten as the youngest sibling in the Lajee family of programs, to grow in mutually beneficial relationships with the health program, the environmental program, and the art-and-music programs already in place for older students and, in the case of healthcare, for older adults.
By March 2021, we had formed a team of five teachers and started a ten-week training course, led by our Serbian colleagues. The goal is that when school begins in September, you, Yasmeen, will celebrate your birthday joined by a team implementing a new curriculum of liberation, starting with 50 four- and five-year-olds.
Yasmeen, your building is all but complete. Landscaping and finishes are done, and we are finalizing furniture, fixtures, and equipment. On an Open Day for the community, in June, parents and children were hosted by the teachers, who showed them the newly renovated space and explained the educational approach. The families liked what they saw and heard.
The renovation of the building and its re-use are simple, one might say banal. Anton, the Bethlehem architect who has meticulously prepared and stamped the construction documents, and I, the foreigner, have worked as colleagues, over the months, over Zoom. Our relationship has been convivial and constructive. Of course we have had our differences, some technical, some programmatic, some aesthetic. But the common goal has superseded each and every one of these difficulties.
The design task has been to make the interior space as neutral and self-effacing as possible. Colors and finishes are calming. The maximizing of natural light and air has been a guiding principle, because this is a place that experiences frequent blackouts. Windows are easy to close and shutters to pull down in the event of tear gas or military attack. 21 Stormwater runoff collects in a cistern below the playground, so that water supply can be maintained for up to two weeks during the frequent water cutoffs.
The physical building has been the easy bit, relatively speaking. Under the restrictive conditions of the Occupation, the processes of design and construction have been an armature for the real task, which is community building. In May and June 2021, nightly incursions by the Israeli Defense Forces resulted in arrests, serious injuries, and deaths, mainly of young people. This has put enormous strain on the staff at Lajee. Even the “normal” anxieties of Occupation, coupled with Covid restrictions, have driven unemployment catastrophically high for months on end. 22
Our home visits in Aida Camp — where we talked with parents about their aspirations for their children — had revealed that many of these houses, unremarkable on the outside, are equipped with impressive electrical and plumbing systems and sophisticated finishes. Palestinian stonemasons are renowned for their skills and are heavily in demand in Israel and throughout the Gulf. 23 How obvious it was, then, to hire from within the camp, as well as to purchase locally. Over the course of the project, 30 workers have been breadwinners for more than 130 family members. Wherever possible, buying from Palestinian manufacturers has been as important a consideration as price. In the construction industry, where few women are employed, a female project manager and women architects and engineers have shown that another way of doing things is possible.
The physical building has been easy, relatively speaking. The real task is community building.
In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), Paulo Freire talks about overcoming the logic of oppression, both the external force exerted by the oppressor, especially against those who side with the oppressed, and the internalized oppression of those who have not yet liberated themselves from the status quo. 24 Your building team and teaching team, Yasmeen, continue to work on our intra-relations — between Americans and Palestinians, older members and younger ones, and men in a team composed largely of women, not to mention the professional position of the architect in relation to lay people. Overcoming the structures and habits of colonialism and patriarchy, and recognizing the limits of professional authority, continue to be an aspirational overlay on the practical work of building renovation and curriculum development. Shatha comments that “Yasmeen is a Palestinian refugee child growing up in the camps. … Lajee will teach her how to fight for freedom and justice for all, this is to instill in our new generation a strong sense of responsibility for their future.”
As we look forward to your birthday, Yasmeen, we celebrate you as the fruit of many minds and many hands. Your task, with the wise and loving leadership of your teachers, will be to educate young children at the start of life, with the continuing support of the community of which you are a part. To seek only to build a better world sometime in the future is to chase an ever-receding mirage. That better world is now. It is made real in the way we work with each other.
No birthday can pass without a poet’s salutation. Here is one (in prose) by the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:
We have an incurable malady: hope. Hope in liberation and independence. Hope in a normal life where we are neither heroes nor victims. Hope that our children will go safely to their schools. Hope that a pregnant woman will give birth to a living baby, at the hospital, and not to a dead child in front of a military checkpoint; hope that our poets will see the beauty of the color red in roses rather than in blood; hope that this land will take up its original name: “land of love and peace.” Thank you for carrying with us the burden of this hope. 25
Good luck, Yasmeen. And many happy returns of the day.