Elias Abu Akleh: “The more liveliness around me, the better I feel”

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In 1986, I was walking with Fuad [Giacaman] in Paris, and we were brainstorming about what we could do besides our work as school administrators at the Freres School in Bethlehem. I raised the issue: Why not to start up an educational center?  We knew there was need for remedial teaching and especially for language learning in our society.  Many school students, especially the older ones, were in need of extracurricular support after school hours. That’s how the Arab Educational Institute started.

The beginning was very inspiring and promising. We managed to collect a real professional team of teachers. We had a good level of language learning: English, Arabic, even Hebrew, and also sometimes German and French courses.  A consul passed by, lots of students came, and we were even obliged to rent another building. The institute was also an opportunity for girls and boys to meet, as most of the schools in our area are sex segregated. Several marriages came out of the meetings! We also started a secretarial course.

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Then the first Intifada began, in 1987. The Israeli military forced us to stop as they thought our students were a threat to them. That is my most difficult memory of the AEI. How education can be frustrated on totally spurious grounds! But I got only more motivation to continue with our alternative educational center. We did not resign to the circumstances. My colleague Fuad started to organize classes in neighboring private houses, what at the time they called “underground education.” We did not want to cut the relations with our students.

The AEI re-opened in 1990. From that time until the mind-1990s we had not many students, mainly because families could not pay the additional fees on top of what the schools demanded. The teachers had to contribute voluntarily. But that was not feasible in the long run. Therefore we changed course in the mid-1990s. Through contacts abroad, especially with the Dutch peace movement IKV with their project Euro-Arab Dialogue from Below (EAD), we started to become more of an NGO working on educational projects, workshops and exchanges. In 1999 we became affiliated to the international peace movement Pax Christi. In that time we came to be known more, locally and abroad. We started to take more initiatives like establishing our youth groups, and later women groups. That’s how AEI developed. The AEI became part of my life, my body. We succeeded to take off and grow.

Eager to learn

We see that the members are really eager to learn more, to gain more knowledge, in whatever field. I myself am not particularly interested in one learning field, it is important that students are eager to know and learn more, and that we are able to facilitate that learning, in whatever direction it goes. At schools students often do not really learn and in fact lose interest. They tell us that they are not satisfied with what they learn at schools. We bring lecturers here, to hear about whatever subjects the students are interested in. For instance, we had last week a Moslem teacher who spoke about Da’aash [ISIS], which is now a hot topic in the community. You can say what we do is life education, students come to stand better in life. The students should have their dreams and we should help them to pursue those dreams. They should be able to prove themselves in society.

Also the visiting internationals are supportive, morally and also practically. They give workshops and bring their talents. It’s some kind of solidarity, they show they feel with us. Together with Fadi [Abou Akleh] and Roger [Salameh] I work to have more guests and volunteers, so that AEI becomes more of a beehive with very different but mutually supportive elements.

The more you give, the more success you get. I am proud what we achieved. What we do is of course not for ourselves personally but for the society. I always worked in the financial part. I was happy to see activities around me, the more the better; the more liveliness, the more I feel good.

My wish for the future? I would like to see the AEI as a college having its own multi-purpose building, with many facilities.


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