By Paola Handal-Michael
When I first started working in elementary schools in Palestine, I was flabbergasted by the amount of waste on the floor. At the end of recess, the school yard was usually filthy: candy wrappers on the floor, bamba and potato chip bags everywhere, and ice cream sticks thrown on the grass and soon covered with ants. At the park was the same thing, despite the garbage cans in plain view. Why didn’t these children walk to the bins and throw their wrappers out? Why didn’t their mothers or caretakers encourage them to clean up their mess? Who is to blame when our streets, schools, and parks are filthy with trash? Why can’t we take better care of our surroundings and make our living environment cleaner? Where to start with fixing this crisis? My view is that educating the future generations and investing in the knowledge they need could be a significant solution to this crisis. Children don’t consciously understand the value of the environment. Ask any 10-year-old if the Dead Sea is really worth more than computers and computer games, and they’d laugh. But if the current crop of children is to emerge as a generation that cherishes the environment, they need to understand it, connect with it, and love it.

Having come from Canada recently, everyone there was talking about “going green,” and with good reason. At my kids’ school, they had an ECO Team that was actively raising money, recycling, and campaigning for litter-less lunches. Students were only allowed to bring reusable water bottles to school, and funds were being raised for an eco-classroom on school grounds. As an educator and parent coming from Palestine, I found it fascinating that a country was so successful and effective in raising awareness about its fragile environment. Not a piece of paper was on the floor, garbage cans were readily available everywhere, recycling bins were at every corner, and the school grounds were green and well kept. I remember thinking to myself, why can’t Palestine adopt the same measures, at least to some extent? Call me idealistic or unrealistic, but I fundamentally believe Palestine has a dire need to teach its people a more effective way to care for their country. Informing people about the natural world is vital for the future of the children of Palestine and the future of all life.

It’s no secret that our planet is threatened with a changing climate. The term global warming is heard often, and it’s affecting our life on Earth because its partly responsible for numerous natural disasters we hear on the news. Can we reverse the effects? We probably can’t. But by becoming more environmentally responsible citizens and handing that mission down to our children, we may help secure not only the planet but also a cleaner Palestine in the future.

In my opinion, it is imperative that all schools in Palestine take on the task of raising environmental awareness among children. As a start, they can better understand the issue. Following that, they can incorporate waste reduction in the schools as well as seriously implementing more programs to teach children to take care of what we currently have. For too many years, Palestine has had to deal with the Occupation, a lack of resources, lack of funds, and war, which has made some parts of our land unhealthy to live on. By teaching our children to be environmentally responsible at an early age, we give them hope for a future in which their environment is stable and healthy. By also teaching our children to recycle and conserve, we are setting a foundation for them to teach their children, so generations to come will have the knowledge to do what it takes to preserve their land.

Practically speaking, this means teaching children to reduce the use of plastic bags, conserve energy, conserve water, recycle, keep the streets clean, avoid using dangerous products, and work towards saving endangered species and plants. Get them involved as young as possible. Schools should show students about being environmentally responsible and provide them with resources and information about saving the environment. That goal must form part of the school experience, and there is no better time to teach children about saving the environment than now.

It may be the school’s responsibility to teach children about their environment, but it’s also the parents’ responsibility to guide them. Teach them to turn off the lights when not in use. Teach them that throwing trash out the car window is not acceptable. Teach them that, at school, wrappers go into the bin and not the floor. Teach them to reuse water containers and not buy plastic water bottles. And finally, teach them that the environment and streets they care little for now will be their home in the future. Parents can encourage their children to make changes and make them believe they can make a difference even with minimal effort.

None of the ideas mentioned above are revolutionary or new, but all of them will make a small difference. In the long run, they will make a real difference. And while all these small deeds will not save the environment or Palestine, they all add up. They are just a few ideas of what children and parents can do to better our schools and help ensure that the next generation has the desire, understanding, and awareness to deal with the environmental crisis we face. We must discover this attitude and teach it to our kids. This planet and land will be their home in the future.

Paola has been an educator for the past 17 years. She currently teaches in the English department at Bethlehem University.