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Reading Crusade Turns Page For Refugee Kids

`Passport to Reading' sets out to combat the grim schooling process of young Palestinians

`IF I had a passport and could travel freely, I would go into space but since I can't, I read about it,'' Saafa Alkam says seriously, her hair covered with the white head-scarf that strictly observant Muslim girls wear.

Saafa was born 13 years ago in the refugee camp of Shuafat, a few kilometers east of Jerusalem, and like most Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, the only official document she has is a United Nations refugee card.

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Proudly, she holds to her chest a little burgundy booklet that testifies to her dreams. Called a ``Passport to Reading,'' each of its pages lists the title and author of a book she has read. Duly stamped by an adult, it becomes a visa to learning.

These childrens' passports have been distributed around the West Bank and Gaza Strip to about 60,000 youths by the Tamer Institute, a Palestinian nonprofit organization. While surveys place the Occupied Territories ahead of Egypt, Iraq, or Syria for general-population literacy rates, with a little less than 70 percent, ``we are very concerned with the obvious degradation of the learning process,'' says Jack Persekian, director of the institute.

``Many factors have contributed to the current state of affairs. The formal education sector has been hampered by overcrowded classrooms, inadequate budgets, ill-trained teachers, and a traditional curriculum that is grossly out of date as well as censored by Israeli authorities,'' he explains.

The Intifada, the Palestinian revolt against the Israeli occupation, has worsened this already grim outlook. ``Over the last five years, because of general strikes or prolonged school closures and curfews imposed by the military authorities, school time has been cut by more than half. So we are trying to provide the children with other means of acquiring knowledge,'' adds Fadia Salfiti, who heads the Passport to Reading Program.

The project, which gets money from European governments, Arab-American associations, and the Methodist church, is part of a broader reading campaign.

A global outreach program is not easy to put into place when there are few means of mass communication in the West Bank and Gaza strip. ``For example, we don't have a Palestinian television where we can invite stars to sponsor a project, as it would be done in America,'' says Mr. Persekian, ``so we invented a theatrical character, `Nakhlesh ash Shiber,' which means `palm tree span of the palm.' We want him to be a symbol: One can be very small but have high ambitions.''

The logo of this character appears on the posters of the reading campaign, on the cover of the Passport to Reading, and the character himself has toured the Occupied Territories to promote childrens' interest in books.

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Another young girl from the refugee camp, Sama Ismai, is quite familiar with Nahklesh ash Shiber; she is starting her third reading passport. Though she has never physically traveled farther than neighboring Jordan, she seems never to stop traveling mentally.

Her favorite destinations are Spain, Italy, and Greece.

``I read everything I can put my hands on about these countries, their history, their folklore,'' says the 14 year old, who has read Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Victor Hugo.

Like her friends, she emphasizes her interest in Arab history, politics, and literature, even if in her eyes the Egyptian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Nagib Mahfuz, ``writes extremely well but the content is a lot of nonsense.''

Before the Intifada, Sama used to go regularly to the only public library of East Jerusalem. The Western Jewish part of Jerusalem has 28 public libraries. But now she has to make do with the refugee camp's modest collection. About 2,000 books cover two walls of a light and relatively spacious room. This is the only easily accessible reading material in the camp for 1,600 children and about 6,000 adults.

About 40 kilometers (25 miles) farther north, in the remote village of Kufer Na'hame, the collection of books is even more modest. One narrow metallic cupboard in the corner of a schoolroom holds a 200-volume library.

But Naief Chtaie, the teacher who promotes the reading campaign in this dry and hilly part of the West Bank, is proud of the results he has already obtained.

Several of his pupils have finished their seventh passport. One of them, Aisa, has even read every single book the library has. The 13 year old went to the village's mosque for more and found beautifully bound books there, but they dealt exclusively with Islam.

``I want to read about everything, but I am particularly interested in sciences and maths and, of course, Palestinian history,'' Aisa says, pointing at a map of the Middle East. The borders of the state of Israel are not marked, as if to deny its very existence.

Asked about this map, the teacher who has drawn it as well as the many pedagogical posters that decorate the walls of the modest schoolroom, says with a smile,

``We hide it when the Israeli soldiers come here.'' He acknowledges that his teaching is full of Palestinian nationalism, ``but I also want the children to understand the rest of the world better. It's their only chance to improve their lot.''

Iasar, the teacher's own 10-year-old son, who sits in the front row of the class as good students often do, dreams of other places. ``One day I want to leave and see it all,'' he says. ``But what I really want to see are the seven wonders of the world.''

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