Interview with Ibrahim Issa
The Hope Flowers School
Associate and Board member
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The Hope Flowers School is a unique institution where students receive a human-rights based education alongside the formal national curriculum. The school is located in Al-Khader, a village on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It was founded in 1984 by Hussein Issa, a Palestinian man whose family was forced to flee their home in 1948 following the violence that marked the inauguration of the State of Israel. Since 2001, the school has been run by his son Ibrahim, who continues to ensure that the 250+ pupils at the school receive peace education alongside the mandatory school curriculum. The school is open to pupils aged 4-13.
Vicky S Rossi: Your father Hussein Issa was the founder of the Hope Flowers School. Was there already a precedent for a school like this? What was his motivation for setting up this kind of educational model?
Ibrahim Issa: This model didn’t exist at the time in the West Bank or Gaza. It was the first and only school in Palestine to teach the philosophy of peace and democratic education.
My father was a Palestinian refugee. All his family’s properties were confiscated by Israel in 1948 and they were forced to live as refugees in the Deheishe refugee camp. My grandfather was a wealthy Palestinian - a farmer with a huge farm. He also had his own commerce. My grandfather died in 1949 – he was really grief stricken by the losses he had experienced. Hussein was born in 1947, so he was only 2 years old when his father died and one year old when the State of Israel was established and Palestine was occupied – the historical Palestine. He grew up in very limited circumstances in a refugee camp and he suffered a lot. You have to imagine that the Occupation by Israel left many families without homes, many people without jobs. The mood within the Palestinian population was to resist and fight against this Occupation. So as a child and teenager Hussein grew up in these very difficult circumstances. In this way the school filled Hussein’s own need for peace and a safe environment.
Hussein studied in the refugee camp schools and then later at Bethlehem University – to be a social worker and psychologist. He worked for UNRWA – United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians – with Palestinians in refugee camps, mainly with children. In this way he recognised again the impact of the Israeli Occupation on the Palestinian children and their need for a supportive environment.
In the 1970s, he became a nonviolent activist. He realised that violence only leads to more violence in our conflict and that the best way to solve our conflict is to create a generation of Israelis and Palestinians, who believe in peace and coexistence.
In 1984 he began the Al Amal Child Care Center, that is, the Hope Flowers School started as a kindergarten. Al Amal is an Arabic word meaning “hope” because the vision of Hussein was hope. You have to imagine that in 1984 the Palestinians didn’t recognise Israel, but also the Israelis didn’t recognise the Palestinians. The PLO recognition for Israel came in 1989. So Hussein was going against the general trend in Palestinian society at that time by creating a school that promotes peace and coexistence and encourages understanding.
Vicky S Rossi: When your father passed away in the year 2000, did you feel any hesitation in taking over the reins as director of the school or was it something that came naturally to you?
Ibrahim Issa: I never expected to become the director of the Hope Flowers School. In the year 2000, when Hussein died, I was in the Netherlands, finishing my Masters of Science in mechanical engineering, so my career and my background is different to peace education. But over all the years I was educated by Hussein, and by others also, about peace education, nonviolence, conflict resolution and leadership. I had already this experience, but before the year 2000 I saw this as something for my own personal development. Hussein died in March 2000, then in September the Intifada started. In September 2000 I was looking to continue my PhD in mechanical engineering, but then I decided that there was more need for peace activism than for engineering. My driving thought became to come back to Palestine to work for peace. When I returned I began by working as a volunteer at the Hope Flowers School, then I became a project coordinator for a few years and eventually I became the managing director.
Vicky S Rossi: As I understand it, the school focuses in the morning on the nine compulsory subjects of the national curriculum as mandated by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and then in the afternoons, evenings or weekends on the extracurricular teaching on peace, democracy and nonviolence. In our discussion the other day, you also mentioned that the current focus is on human rights and citizenship. Do the latter now constitute the overarching theme of the extra-curricular activities?
Ibrahim Issa: First, let me say one thing. It is not totally correct that we have only extra-curricular activities that we do after school. The idea of our educational philosophy is that we integrate these concepts within the standard school subjects. For example, we teach the Hebrew language during the lesson time – we don’t wait until the end of the school day. We teach inter-faith instead of religious education. We adapt our curriculum to do this. But there are also after school hour activities.
Regarding peace, democracy, nonviolence, leadership, empowerment, these are all elements in peace education. Two years ago we began to ask ourselves, “What is the common theme of all these topics?” and “What’s the purpose of education in general?” We decided that the purpose of education is the wellbeing of the human being and to contribute to human development. We also decided that the common ground for these subjects of peace education is human rights. At that point, we started to use the more general name “human rights” education – instead of “peace and democratic participation” education. We began to refer to “human-rights” based education because it is all about building better human relations.
Vicky S Rossi: With regard the teaching methods employed at the Hope Flowers School, are these the same as the traditional method whereby a teacher lectures in front of a classroom of pupils or is it more peer-to-peer project-based?
Ibrahim Issa: We use both methods, it depends on the subject. We are obliged by the Ministry of Education to use the traditional method of teaching, so in the morning classes the teachers will stand in front of the students. But then we also use the project-based educational model. Extra-curricular activities allow for more interaction between the students and teachers.
Vicky S Rossi: The school offers psychological and emotional support mechanisms for students and their families. Why is this necessary?
Ibrahim Issa: Well, it’s related to peace education also. We define here that every act of violence is the result of an unhealed wound. In order to prevent a future escalation of violence, to restore peace and calmness within the human being and also to prepare the ground for a future reconciliation, we need here to heal the traumas.
Vicky S Rossi: Are these traumas in people’s personal lives at home or traumas in relation to their experiences as persons living under occupation?
Ibrahim Issa: Both. Although we talk mainly about war trauma because the situation here has created a collective trauma, we have a complete programme for the teachers to train them in how to deal with traumatised children whatever their trauma might be – it could be the death of parents, it could be accidents. We have here a training programme and a counselling programme. We train teachers from Hope Flowers School and teachers from other schools in the area on how to support traumatised children, how to identify a traumatised child and how to deal with him. Here we provide also counselling for traumatised children and their families. We provide this service also to children from other schools.
What I want to tell you is that we do not only act as a school. We are also a Center for Education and Community Development. We work with a huge number of organisations and schools also.
Vicky S Rossi: Is that different to the Center for Peace and Democracy, which is mentioned on your website?
Ibrahim Issa: The Center for Peace and Democracy is one department of the Center for Education and Community Development.
Vicky S Rossi: What other departments are there within the Center for Education and Community Development?
Ibrahim Issa: The Center for Peace and Democracy is specifically for professional development. We also have departments for psychological support, interfaith and youth. In the Center for Peace and Democracy we train people from other organisations and we train teachers in order to spread the Hope Flowers School model. Our focus is to train teachers in other schools. We cannot create a Hope Flowers School in each city, but in order to create a culture of peace – and this is a major goal of the Peace and Democracy Department – we need to think how we can extend our model to other schools so that we foster the creation of a culture of peace and democracy in Palestine.
We have started by training 3 teachers from each school, providing them with full training on peace and democratic participation and how to implement that in their own schools. With our support and supervision, they train their colleagues and they integrate this model in their schools, within their classrooms.
Vicky S Rossi: Are there any examples of whole schools being set up according to the Hope Flowers model?
Ibrahim Issa: No, on the Palestinian side there are no schools that have adopted this model. Among the Israelis, however, there is a school at Neve Shalom, and then there is the Hand-in-Hand school and Givat Haviva, where they have a similar model. Also there are schools like the Hadera school and the Institute of Democratic Education in Tel Aviv, which is an umbrella organisation for democratic schools in Israel. They have 25 schools and this democratic schools model is very popular in Israel.
Vicky S Rossi: Are they teaching principles of democratic participation there?
Ibrahim Issa: Yes, but it is also a human rights based education with a focus on how to create inner peace, personal development. In contrast, here at the Hope Flowers School we concentrate more on peace-oriented activities, for example, we teach the Hebrew language and inter-faith; we have community-based activities; we have a lot of exchange programmes with Israeli and international schools. In the Israeli schools I mentioned it is not like that. They don’t have the Israeli-Palestinian aspect in their education. We had, in the past before the last Intifada, a very intense partnership with the democratic school of Hadera, but because of the closures and the isolation imposed on Palestinian society by the Israeli Occupation our contact nowadays is more through phone and internet. We are not able to have the kind of intense contact we had before.
We focus on the Palestinian-Israeli aspect because fear and stigmatising starts when people don’t meet, don’t interact with each other. This is why we always defend our model because you can’t create peace while you are isolated, while one is here and the other is there. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a priority in the democratic schools in Israel. They see it only from the personal development aspect of education. They have interaction with Arab Israelis, but they don’t have interaction with Palestinian schools.
Vicky S Rossi: With regards how the Hope Flowers school is trying to promote contacts between Palestinians and Israelis, you mentioned student exchanges. Are these still possible with the current “closures” imposed by the Israeli army such as the checkpoints and the Wall?
Ibrahim Issa: Let me start by saying that from the very first day that the school was established here we started to create contacts and to build partnerships with Israeli schools, organisations and individuals, who believe in peace and coexistence. We had an Israeli volunteers programme before the Intifada. We have also open days here in the Hope Flowers School for Israelis, who want to come and listen and see what we are doing. In 1999, before the Intifada, we had 700 Israelis visit the school – just to hear what we are doing here.
This is part of our philosophy – to encourage dialogue and contact between Palestinians and Israelis. Another way we have done this is that in 1996 we were the first school to start organising Palestinian and Israeli teachers’ workshops. We saw education as our common ground. We brought Palestinian and Israeli teachers together so they could discuss topics that benefited their students but also so that they could act as positive role models when they went back into their classrooms. You know students are very much affected by the opinions of their teachers. If teachers say, “All Palestinians are bad” then students will grow up with that idea, but if the teacher chooses tolerance and respect for all humans, saying that even if we have differences we can resolve our differences in a peaceful way, then that is a very positive model for the students. So we try to train teachers to use this model.
Vicky S Rossi: What do you do about the materials you use? Let’s take history as an example and the way it is presented in standard textbooks. How do you deal with that? Do you end up teaching history using your own materials?
Ibrahim Issa: There is a big discussion on this point. As a school we are obligated to use the Ministry of Education textbooks even the history books. As you know there is a difference between the Israeli and the Palestinian version of history, which present totally different versions. Actually, there is even a difference within the Palestinian versions of history; it depends on the affiliation of the author.
What we concentrate on at Hope Flowers is human rights. We teach that all humans have the right to live irrespective of their religion, colour or nationality and that we can share this land together, coexisting here together, able to see each other as human beings. It is very important that our students and the Israeli students also see this very general common ground - that we are all humans and that we all have the right to live. This is the way we get beyond history and religion. Religion is also a very difficult issue.
Vicky S Rossi: Are the students here all Palestinian and either Muslim or Christian?
Ibrahim Issa: Yes, the students and the teachers are all Palestinian and Muslim or Christian. In the past, before the Intifada, we also had Jewish participation, for example, Jewish Israeli teachers taught Hebrew and Judaism as part of the inter-faith programme. We also had inter-faith Ministers and Imam’s here. It was good to give students an opportunity to celebrate all these differences and to learn to value these differences also. Our classrooms were not separated in the sense that this is Muslim, Christian or Jewish - when we had Jewish students. They were all in the same classroom. All of them got the same education even in religion and history with an emphasis, for example, on religion as a way to bring people together rather than splitting people from each other.
Vicky S Rossi: As an example of the impact of the Second Intifada starting in the year 2000 and the greater restrictions imposed on Palestinian society by the Israeli Occupation – the Wall, checkpoints, permits and so on – you mention that there are no longer any Jewish Israeli teachers or students at the Hope Flowers School. What other impacts have been felt at Hope Flowers since the outbreak of the Second Intifada? Has the situation worsened in any way since the election of Hamas to government in January of this year?
Ibrahim Issa: I think you have raised 2 points. First, the Israeli students. Well, it is not that we have stopped all our contacts. We still have cooperation with Israeli schools. We still have cooperation with Israeli organisations. We still have visits. We are located on the edge of Bethlehem, which makes it easier for Israelis to travel here from the other side. But it is on a smaller scale. Before 2000, Palestinians students from Hope Flowers were daily in Israeli schools and Israeli students came here daily. Each Hope Flowers classroom had a project or a joint initiative with a parallel Israeli classroom. Daily we had Israeli teachers and students in the Hope Flowers School. This is sadly much different now.
Following the election of Hamas, there has been no great change. The situation has remained much as it was, actually.
The difficulty we had after 2000 was that the Israelis closed the main road leading to the school. They gave us a demolition order for the school cafeteria because the Wall will be built here. No buildings are allowed within a 170 meter radius of the Wall on the Palestinian side and our school cafeteria falls within this range. So we have been very badly affected.
Vicky S Rossi: Is that demolition order still current?
Ibrahim Issa: Yes. The demolition order is still there and we are in continuous campaign against it. By the way, this demolition order is affecting not only the Hope Flowers School. It affects 15 other homes in the area too. Last July they demolished four of these, so we are very concerned about the Wall.
The other thing is that we have lost 350 students since the year 2000 because they used to come from western parts of Bethlehem. This area is now totally isolated. They can’t reach the Hope Flowers School anymore.
Vicky S Rossi: Because they have to go through a checkpoint?
Ibrahim Issa: Yes. Road closures, checkpoints and the main roads are blocked so transportation is not possible. Students used to also come from Jerusalem to the Hope Flowers School. As you know, Jerusalem is only 15 kilometres from here and the school used to be very well connected with public transportation. Students used to come from Hebron, which is 25 kilometres to the south of here. The school was seen to be a model and people who are attracted to this model are not only from Bethlehem. From 580 students in the scholastic year 1999-2000, for the scholastic year 2000-2001 we only had 120 students left. You can imagine! We had to close the secondary level of the school. We kept the school only as an elementary level school.
Vicky S Rossi: When did that pick up again because now you have around 250 students?
Ibrahim Issa: Yes. Well, this year we reopened grade 7. We have reduced our tuition fees – another consequence of this situation. We used to totally depend on tuition fees to cover our expenses. After the year 2000 we had to reduce our tuition fees because people couldn’t afford them anymore. We provide 50 full and 50 partial scholarships for the 250 students here. Nowadays the tuition fees form only 15% of our budget and the rest has to be covered by donations. This has a very bad consequence for our school here.
Vicky S Rossi: Do these donations come from inside or outside Palestine?
Ibrahim Issa: We get funding from supporters, who are loyal to this philosophy, from Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus. A lot of our supporters are Muslim and Christian Palestinians living in the US.
We don’t have any religious or political affiliation, so we don’t receive any money from the government, political parties or religious groups.
Vicky S Rossi: You mean you choose not to.
Ibrahim Issa: We choose not to, that’s right, in order to be effective in peace education, otherwise we cannot implement our philosophy here in an independent way.
We have some organisations supporting specific projects, which we call “restricted” funds, for example, the War Trauma programme, and we are allowed to use these funds only for that project. The same is true for the psychological support programme or the inter-faith programme. Our major problem is to find the funds for the running expenses of the school. This, unfortunately, forms our biggest challenge always.
We are currently thinking of setting up a “Friends of Hope Flowers” supporters’ club in different countries. One of them is going to be in Switzerland. I will be on a speaking tour there in January 2007 telling people about the school and our situation, but also trying to set up a “Friends of the Hope Flowers” club.
Vicky S Rossi: In which ways can you and the teachers at the Hope Flowers School measure the success of your educational model and philosophy? Hope Flowers has been running for more than 20 years now; have you perceived any noticeable difference in the way students who have graduated from the Hope Flowers School interact with Palestinian society or vis-à-vis the Israeli Occupation?
Ibrahim Issa: We have a continuous evaluation of our approach here. Every 10 years we have a very extended evaluation. With regard the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we can say that none of our students has ever engaged in violence. Some of them have been in prison, but you know in the Palestinian case being in jail does not mean that you have engaged in violence. All of our students are promoting this nonviolent concept within their communities. With regard our graduates, we don’t have 100% who have followed university degrees, but it is very important for us that they become leaders in their communities, whether they are carpenters or doctors or engineers or whatever. It is very important that we manage to give them this aspect of taking responsibility to become active citizens and this feeling of leadership. I think this is one of our successes here at Hope Flowers.
I hope one day that we can publish stories written by our graduates on how the school has affected their lives. Recently I spoke to one of them, who was here on a visit. He comes from a very conservative family. One of the things he said to me was how the Israeli-Palestinian contacts he experienced here at Hope Flowers had impacted his time at university by helping him to be open and tolerant - valuing his friends and colleagues and all the differences that exist in his life - and to deal with very basic family conflicts. It’s not only the larger conflict, but also how this approach helped him to cultivate peace within himself. Although I wasn’t here in 2000 when this young man graduated, as present director of Hope Flowers his words gave me a very nice indication of how our education can positively affect a student. With his words he had picked out the very essence of peace education.
*This transcript represents an accurate but non-verbatim representation of the original interview.
For further information, please contact:
Hope Flowers School
PO Box 732, Bethlehem, Palestine
Tel: +972 2 274 0693 / 4975
Fax: +972 2 274 7084
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