Nur Amro’s little school is nestled at the foot of some nondescript stairs in East Jerusalem, out of sight from the road above. You would only know it was there by the sound of laughing and shrieking children, or because Nur himself told you about it. And Nur tells a lot of people. The fundraising never stops for a school that is denied state investment.
Nur is blind. He navigates his world with confidence and dignity, and fights for his students to do the same. He established this school in 2008. His mission is to provide blind and otherwise marginalised children with the educational environment he was denied as a child.
Approximately 150 children aged three 3 to 12 – the absolute maximum occupancy of the building – study at the Siraj Al-Quds school in Wadi Joz.
Nur walks through the happy chaos of the overcrowded school at lunchtime. He opens doors so we can peer into classrooms crammed with desks. It is hard to imagine how the students leave the room without climbing over one another.
Four of these rooms are manufactured out of metal and wood. “We need to be able to take them apart within 30 minutes,” says Nur. Building permits are nearly impossible to obtain in East Jerusalem, and the school cannot afford the cost and disruption of an Israeli demolition.
Running a school is difficult. Running a school for children with special needs is especially difficult. Running such a school without any state support is next to impossible, but Nur has not been defeated yet: “We always try to do miracles here.”
The school pays: 16 employees; a monthly rent of $3000 dollars; and $500 a month to a local government that provides no support. Add to this the myriad other costs of running a school for 150 children and you understand why Nur speaks of miracles. The school relies entirely on charitable donations, and maintaining that fickle income requires tireless advocacy.
Once, the school fell behind on its local government tax payments. Despite providing nothing in return for such taxation the police were sent three times, each time threatening to shut the school.
According to Nur, this would be a “catastrophic” situation for the children. There is nowhere else for them to go.
Aside from the physical disabilities common among the children in the school, Nur estimates that about 80 per cent of the students suffer psychological problems. These result from their lived experiences: home demolitions; imprisonment of family members; night raids; and other ordeals familiar to the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.
Not all traumatic experiences are so manifest. Many of the students’ families suffer from the stress of paying fines to the local government. As Nur says, “Thousands of families in Jerusalem pay huge fines because their houses are deemed illegally built. This puts big pressure on families, and big psychological stress.”
Only 4,300 building permits were issued in East Jerusalem between 1967 and 2012, despite the Palestinian population in the city growing by 442 per cent in the same time period. As a result, thousands of families in East Jerusalem live under the constant threat of demolition.
Nur cites consistent psychological support as a need for the children. This support is currently provided on a haphazard basis by university volunteers. “We need full-time people,” he says.
He is no mere observer of such traumas. In 2015, soldiers came to his home in the night, “banging violently on the doors.” The whole family was awakened. Nur lives with his wife and three young children. The soldiers told him they would demolish a fence, and when he left the building to speak with the commander, they began to demolish the entire house instead.
His wife looked in the window, saw what was happening, and collapsed. “They deceived us. We stood in front of the bulldozers and hindered the demolition. Part of the house was saved. We never expected such a thing, we were not ready. No court order, no decision, nothing. It was a terrible thing to happen to us. It caused a very negative impact on my children.”
Nur’s home has sat for 50 years in an area now designated by Israel as a National Park, where all residential construction is prohibited. The state has plans for a biblical history park ringing the walls of the Old City. The 4,000 Palestinians living in the area are an unwelcome impediment. Nur recently received news that the Nature and Parks Authority was accelerating its efforts to clear his neighborhood of Palestinian homes, returning his family to the fear they experienced that night in 2015. “We are living in a state of instability. We are expecting worse now. We are living in constant anxiety. My children are asking where they will go if the house is demolished, and I don’t have an answer for them.”
Another day, another miracle demanded of Nur.
Learn more about Wadi Joz.
Learn more from B’tSelem about the use of national parks as tool for constraining Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.