Helping to build a brighter future for Palestinian preschoolers

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Only one in three of all Palestinian four and five-year-olds are enrolled in preschool (ANERA / Ron Coello)

Child nutrition (Early years), Early childhood development, ​Learning through play (Early years), Teachers and learning

The organisation American Near East Refugee Aid has been upgrading preschools, training teachers and leading the way in developing a national early childhood development strategy.

Only one-third of all Palestinian four and five-year-olds in the West Bank and Gaza are enrolled in preschool – despite overwhelming evidence that what children learn in childhood impacts on the rest of their lives.

As many as 38% of children in Gaza are stunted (when children are not getting the necessary nutrition or stimulation to grow properly) and over 50% of preschool-aged children are anaemic.

Children in the State of Palestine have been living with conflict for years. Trauma in their early years not only affects how they develop but ultimately how their countries flourish.

One organisation – American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) – is helping to rebuild a future for young children in Palestine and Lebanon. One brick at a time.

ANERA addresses the development and humanitarian needs of Palestinians and other communities in Palestine and Lebanon.

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Sulieman Mleahat has been working in early childhood development programmes for 17 years (Theirworld)

Sulieman Mleahat is ANERA’s director for early childhood development based in Ramallah, in the central West Bank, six miles north of Jerusalem. He spoke to Theirworld about what the organisation is doing for children.

ANERA is investing in upgrading preschools, training teachers, producing resources and addressing wider issues by leading the way in developing a national early childhood development strategy and curricula in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Mleahat said: “We are focusing on children in preschools because most of the preschools are not fit for purpose. 

“We go in, we renovate, we equip, we rebuild. We have upgraded and built 160 kindergartens in the West Bank and Gaza. We’re just about to build 10 new ones.”

Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign is urging countries to do likewise and invest in early childhood development. 

90% of brain development happens before the age of five and there are five key areas of care for young children –  nutrition, health, learning, play and protection.

Mleahat explained how ANERA’s programmes work.

“Our first programme pillar is that the preschool environment has to be safe and stimulating for children and we’ve done that. 

“Our second pillar is that we provide training and mentorship for preschool teacher. We’re trained 600 teachers in six years.

“Our third pillar is our work with parents. We’ve supported 20,000 parents through a positive parenting programme – we call it ECD in the community. 

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ANERA is helping to rebuild a future for young children (Ron Coello / ANERA / Facebook)

“We have reading campaigns to make homes become learning environments and they take literacy kits home.”

Mleahat – who has been working in early childhood development programmes for 17 years – recently returned from an ECD conference held in Dubai by UNICEF and the philanthropic organisation Dubai Cares.

He said: “It has been proved that the early years are the most sensitive period in anyone’s life. Conception to three. The first 1000 days are crucial. 

“This is when children grow the most – physically and emotionally.

We’re still struggling to convince donors that preschool years are important and that it impacts on children’s futures. ​Sulieman Mleahat, ANERA’s director for early childhood development

“The science is concrete. The first 1000 days are when children need nutrition, protection and stimulation. 

“But, despite these facts, there are still 250 million children in the world who will never reach their full potential because they do not have the basics – proper nutrition, stimulation and safety.

“And while there is a lot of interest in the facts and the science, paradoxically this has not been reflected in the donor agenda. 

“We’re still struggling to convince donors that preschool years are important and that it impacts on children’s futures.”

The region is known for its many years of devastating conflict, which not only causes physical deprivation but trauma for the most vulnerable.

There is evidence that bringing in programmes for children in conflict is very important and has a great affect. 

Theirworld report last year examined the effect of emergencies such as wars and natural disasters can have on very young children.

It called for “safe spaces” in emergencies – places where babies, young children and their caregivers can get support to counter the negative impacts of crisis situations on children’s growth and development.

Mleahat said: “ECD is more valued and more effective in very poor environments, which is all the more reason that we should be investing ECD, we’re burdening children at a very young age if we don’t provide tools for coping.

“In the absence of peace, we have to support parents and children. We provide a safe space, a stimulating space for children to learn and develop away from the home and to realise their rights. 

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Palestinian children have been living with conflict most of their lives (ANERA / Facebook)

“It’s doubly difficult. It can be very difficult in this region but still there is not  adequate investment from major donors.” 

ANERA’s policy on ECD is now taking a three-pronged approach.

Mleahat explained: “Firstly, we contact parents, making sure there is proper stimulation, good nutrition and of course protection at home. 

“The second is to get local and national governments to properly understand the importance of ECD and recognise this by investing in it and children. 

“The third is to do the same with world governments, again getting them to realise that without proper ECD care, the future of their children will be affected.”

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