When plans began to rebuild a school in Gaza that was destroyed by Israeli bombs in 2014, the foundation funding the new school decided to involve some extra designers: the students.
“Instead of rebuilding what we thought the community wanted in their school, we asked them to tell us,” says Farooq Burney, executive director of Al Fakhoora, a program of the Education Above All Foundation that works to promote the right to education in conflict zones. “We let the community, and particularly the children who will use it every day, influence what we built.”
The Jamal Abdul Nasser School, a school for students between 11 and 16 years old, was one of 538 schools that were damaged or completely leveled during the 2014 conflict with Israel. All of the school buildings were destroyed, and the school’s 800 students were forced to squeeze into another nearby school. As class sizes swelled, attendance dropped.
In workshops, the students offered suggestions for the new school. “Crucially, and sadly reflective of the ongoing conflict in Gaza, one of the most important things that the children of this community wanted was a building where they felt safe,” says Burney. To help achieve that, they built a school where the windows were shatter-proof, and the buildings can serve as an emergency shelter.
While schools in the area might typically have outdoor paths between classrooms, this one does not. “The children in Gaza are terrified of the sound of airplanes and drones–for them, this means danger and attack,” he says. “They were very clear that they wanted to feel safe at school because, for many of them, they do not feel safe at home.” By making it possible to move between classrooms without going in the open air, the architects eliminated one common reason why children are afraid to come to school.
The school is also designed to be bright and comfortable, with thermal insulation that keeps classrooms from getting too hot in the summer or cold in the winter. Solar panels on the school provide renewable energy, and a source of power that can continue if the school needs to transform into an emergency shelter for the community. An onsite health facility provides mental health support; teachers are trained to help students learn conflict resolution skills. The students also focused on how to make the school a good place to learn, with an extensive library and flexible learning spaces.
The design follows UNICEF’s guidelines for a “child-friendly” school, which include making a school safe and stimulating and incorporating participatory design. Including the community in the design process is one of the most important pieces, Burney says. “After facing such devastating destruction in their lives, their involvement and understanding is crucial to rebuilding some of that lost trust in authority.” The United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF both helped implement the project, which was funded by the Qatar Fund for Development.
In Gaza, the school is a first step in the foundation’s larger plan to provide new opportunities for Gazan youth, including rebuilding and repairing other schools, and working on vocational training centers. But the foundation also thinks that a similar design process could help students in other areas devastated by war. “For other conflict zones, such as Syria, I believe this is a concept that can be replicated as we begin to rebuild years of destruction to ensure that children feel safe at school, and are encouraged to attend,” Burney says.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the school itself is not blast-resistant, and just the windows are shatter proof.