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Amid war, what does the future of education look like in Gaza?


Kids get an education in a war zone. Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza has left more than 2 million Palestinians at risk there, and among all the other issues, there are no functioning schools. Leila Fadel spoke with the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF. Their spokesperson is Ricardo Pires.

RICARDO PIRES: Not one child in Gaza is able to go to school at the moment. They're just trying to keep alive another day, making sure their parents are around them - they're not being separated from them or seeing one of them being killed in indiscriminate bombardments that have been happening for at least seven months now. Sadly, children have lost the dream and the right to education in the Gaza Strip today.


I wanted to ask, what's different about Gaza? I mean, we've seen other conflicts where makeshift schools are able to open, kids are able to get educations. In Ukraine, for example, they used underground subway stations as classrooms. If you could talk about what makes the war in Gaza different.

PIRES: I think what makes this conflict so unique is the fact that all the bombardments and the artillery exchange - it's all happening in one of the most densely populated places on the planet, which since October 7 has been leveled down. Children are being squeezed into what we could say are small ghettos now where they have no safety. They have no physical space to survive or to try and keep a normal life, let alone have a temporary tent to learn and study.

UNICEF had a plan to set up 50 tents for children in Rafah in the coming month. Sadly, we had to stop those plans, which would be highly important for children on the ground. Now they have to be relocated again. They have to be evacuated again from an area that they were told it would be safe. So you can imagine that children in Rafah - some 600,000 children estimated to have been living there.

But there's only so much we can ask from these children. Now they're being moved to areas where there are no toilets. There are no tents for them to shelter. This conflict is very peculiar and very unique in the sense that so many children have been impacted, killed, injured in such a short period of time with such ferocity.

FADEL: So what do you do in a situation like this? I mean, in a statement last month, 25 U.N. experts questioned whether the destruction of schools in Gaza amounts to what they called scholasticide, the systemic obliteration of an education system. How do you even help children in a moment like this in Gaza? And what do you do about an education system if it's not even safe enough to open a school in a tent?

PIRES: There's no point in planning their future if their present is under attack. But rest assured, their future is also under attack because now 90- to 92% of all school buildings in Gaza are either being used as shelters or have sustained varying levels of damage. So they are no longer schools or places for learning. And how do we rebuild that if right now they're still being killed on a daily basis? Every single child in the Gaza Strip today is traumatized by seven months of horror.

FADEL: There isn't a cease-fire on the horizon. What happens now to these kids?

PIRES: It's a very difficult question to answer because there's no safe place in Gaza right now. And so it's only a matter of time before children start dying even more from disease than from weapons because they're not getting aid.

FADEL: They also can't get out. The other thing I saw in Ukraine is...


FADEL: ...Schools being set up in neighboring countries - right? - Poland, Romania - places that Ukrainian kids could resume school. Is there any effort for school kids from Gaza to do that? I mean, the borders are sealed right now.

PIRES: They are sealed. You're right. That's also a very unique aspect of this conflict. As you mentioned, in the Ukraine and many, many other conflicts - look at Sudan as well right now...

FADEL: Right.

PIRES: ...As much as possible, communities move away from the violence. They flee the violence. But that in Gaza is not even a possibility. They don't have a border to cross. They have high-standing walls that prevent them from going anywhere. They have the sea that is not even a safe place for them to run out to. And even if they do, where are they going to go? It's just an unrelenting nightmare.

FADEL: Are you seeing evidence that Hamas is operating from all these schools, as somebody with UNICEF, with teams on the ground?

PIRES: Look, no. We don't have any evidence to justify these attacks on civilian infrastructure. We haven't seen anything that justifies such horrors. We need a cease-fire. Otherwise what we're seeing here is the blood bath and the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of children.

FADEL: Ricardo Pires is the spokesman for UNICEF. Thank you so much for your time.

PIRES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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