'It gives us hope conflict can be resolved'

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

Image caption,
Miriam Leibowitz-Assaraf (left) and Maysoun Hallak are in Belfast to learn about shared education

"Seeing a society who politically resolved issues is something that gives me a lot of hope."

Some of our political divisions have been laid bare by the recent election, but from outside some see us as an example to emulate.

Israeli headteacher Miriam Leibowitz-Assaraf is one of more than 30 Israeli and Arab school principals from Jerusalem currently visiting schools here to see how shared education works.

She said seeing Belfast gave her hope "conflict can be resolved".

Shared education is where pupils from separate schools and different backgrounds engage in joint classes and activities.

Some - like Limavady High School and St Mary's High School - share buildings and their pupils study many subjects alongside each other.

The Jerusalem principals are undertaking a similar endeavour, as their schools are involved in a shared learning programme organised by the city's education department.

Maysoon Hallak is the principal of Shu'afat Girls School.

'They must see the other side'

Many of her pupils, aged six to 13, come from the Shu'afat Palestinian refugee camp in east Jerusalem.

"Three-hundred-and-eighty girls come through the checkpoints in the morning and afternoon," she told BBC News NI.

"Because they have a very awful experience every day and every night I thought that they must see the other [side] of the Israeli people as they only see the soldiers and checkpoints.

"I began with another school with a principal from the Israeli community and we began to organise a little bit of courses for English and Hebrew as this communication can help them to see in a big way, in bigger pictures.

"We have many elements of the conflict - the language, the religion, the way of life, the customs of how we live - so we need to understand the other side."

Ms Leibowitz-Assaraf is the principal of Inbar Leadership School for Girls.

Image caption,
More than 30 Israeli and Palestinian school principals from Jerusalem are visiting Northern Ireland schools to see how shared education works

She is Jewish and so are her pupils but they are also sharing learning with a Palestinian school.

"We've been collaborating and meeting together for the last two or three years," she said.

"Last year my students studied Arabic, their students studied Hebrew and they would meet over Zoom with a joint curriculum and a joint mission of learning language together.

"Through that they also got to know each other and become acquainted and these are students that would never have anything to do with each other if not for this programme.

'They get to know one another as human beings'

"Their everyday life does not bring them to know each other or have any joint activities.

"The only way that my students can learn about the Palestinian society is through news and through public relations which are usually not positive and usually have to do with the violence, with the conflict and the hard parts of living side by side.

"Once they meet their peers and they get to know their hobbies and they get to study language together they get to know them as human beings.

"I know it sounds a little bit like a cliche but it's really not, it's very real.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Shared education is separate schools and different backgrounds coming together for joint classes and activities

"So it's not only the pictures on the news and it's not only things that they hear around them.

"It's real people with names and some of them get to a stage where they can say 'this is my friend'."

Prof Tony Gallagher from Queen's University, who is co-ordinating the visit, said the Jerusalem principals want to know about politics here too.

"The first question they asked whenever we met with them on Sunday evening after they arrived, they wanted to know about the election result and what it meant because it was being headlined all over the place," he said.

'Belfast gives me hope'

Ms Leibowitz-Assaraf said Northern Ireland's recent history and the school leaders she has been meeting here bring hope for her own country and city.

"One of the principals said: 'I grew up in Belfast where there was bombing and we're after that now', so that is something that gives a lot of hope to us that conflict can be resolved," she reflected.

"I see the division and I see that there's a lot of work to be done.

"But seeing a society who politically resolved issues - you're in a much better place that you were in 20 years ago - is something that gives me a lot of hope."