Environmentalists Tap Palestinian Schoolchildren to Clean Jerusalem's Holy Valley

By Sheasley, Chelsea B. | The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

Environmentalists Tap Palestinian Schoolchildren to Clean Jerusalem's Holy Valley


Sheasley, Chelsea B., The Christian Science Monitor


Blue plastic bags and old bottles litter the hill leading to Al Afaq Boy's School in East Jerusalem, but a step through the school's tall metal gate reveals a completely different scene. There are solar panels, rainwater harvesting barrels, and no trash in sight.

The school grounds reflect the effort of a team of Israelis and Palestinians who are introducing environmental education into East Jerusalem schools. They have achieved a laudable level of cooperation in a region where even garbage is tinged with political controversy. But challenges, including vandalism, remain.

"In traditional Palestinian culture, no one used to throw out anything: They would reuse it. With new technology, plastics, nylon, etcetera, it became easier to throw away," says Khaled Abu Khaff, a manager at Only Green, the first environmental education center in East Jerusalem and a volunteer at Al Afaq school.

Much of the environmental education effort in East Jerusalem started four years ago as a part of a plan to clean up Jerusalem's Kidron Valley, which abuts the city's most historic sites and separates East and West Jerusalem. It's also full of trash and raw sewage: 15 to 20 million cubic meters are dumped each year - enough to fill six Olympic swimming pools. Political disagreement has stymied efforts to build a sewage treatment plant, but a team of Israelis and Palestinians is making a renewed push for the plant. They see environmental education as part of their task.

The Israeli lawyers leading the Kidron Valley project, Richard Laster and Dani Livney, partnered with grassroots organizations Only Green, Friends of the Earth Middle East, and Water Resources Action Project to identify and fund local residents interested in environmental education.

"We saw that there was so much that needed doing. A lot of garbage; not much planning, if there was any at all; sewage," Mr. Livney says. "We felt like one of the main places to start would be in environmental education, to change the mindset of people because they had come to really accept the way the situation was."

Members of the Kidron Valley team helped install environmental education initiatives at 10 East Jerusalem schools through which concepts such as recycling and rainwater harvesting are taught. At Al Afaq and the Sur Baher Girl's School, which in 2009 became the first schools to participate, teachers have eagerly embraced environmentalism, but it's hard to measure how much of an affect the lessons are having at home, where locals cite taxes and poor roads as bigger concerns than the environment.

So the teachers try to assign activities that involve parents. Al Afaq students ask their families to help them collect trash to bring to school, where it is reused for student projects like making flower planters out of plastic soda bottles cut open to fill with dirt and flowers.

"At the beginning of the course the parents say, 'What, you want us to collect trash?'" says environmental education teacher Hazar Khatteb. …

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