Thinking beyond Barbed Wire

"Talitha Kumi" is the name of a Christian private school in the West Bank, located on a hill in Beit Jala surrounded by the Israeli wall. Mona Sarkis went for a visit and talked to the school's director

"Talitha Kumi" means, "Little girl, arise!," the words spoken by Jesus to revive the dead daughter of Jairus in the Gospel of Mark. "Wanting to give courage in a hopeless situation. Isn't that beautiful?," says Georg Dürr. A tall, thin man with a cordial smile, he is an outspoken optimist.

But this does not mean he is an idealist. Dürr began his job as director of Talitha Kumi three years ago, bringing with him years of experience in crisis situations. A former math teacher, he previously headed German private schools in Namibia and South Africa. "You learn how to cope with your fears in an apartheid system."

Obstinacy, optimism and diplomacy

For example, the time he advocated opening up schools for blacks and then had to weather the rage of whites. How does one react in a situation like that? With obstinacy, optimism and diplomacy, says Dürr, who is practiced in all three areas.

He remains obstinate, for example, when NGO's regularly knock on his office door. He answers their offers of "peace building" and "conflict resolution" with a counteroffer that they come to his classroom and study conflict up close. Take, for instance, the time when Hamas won the election and a ninth grader triumphantly told the classroom beauties they would soon have to wear headscarves, upon which he was beaten by an older classmate.

Remaining stubborn is also something Dürr insists on when it comes to understanding religions. Instead of making assumptions about the other, Christian and Muslim children should ask one another openly and naively: What does it mean to you to fast during Ramadan? Or: Why is there a Holy Trinity – can't Christians make up their minds whom to worship?

Mutual understanding instead of confrontation

​​One of Dürr's other goals is to contribute to society's development concerning a very different issue. The fact that the numbers of handicapped children are rising in Palestine – in part because of limited mobility and thus increasing intermarriage – is devastating, but Dürr says it is not a reason to fail these children or to hide them.

But sometimes he feels he lacks the right answers. For example when Israeli soldiers justify their actions with statements asserting that what they are doing to Palestinians is "not as bad as the Holocaust." In such moments Dürr seems almost resigned, but then he gathers himself and remembers that it is not confrontation but mutual understanding that will bring us further.

This is his message, whether the issue is the flying of a Palestinian flag in the school yard – as desired by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture and to the great consternation of Israel – or discussions with the Israeli military regarding access to the school for children who live beyond the wall.

Teaching methodological and social competence

The school, founded by Father Theodor Fliedner in 1851, currently has 850 students. It is sponsored by the Berlin Mission and has been recognized as a UNESCO school since 2000. In 1979 the former girls' school was made co-ed, which apparently does not disturb the Hamas party elected to office in 2006 (the Koran does not object to coeducation).

But some parents have a harder time with this issue, preferring to send their boys to Talitha Kumi and their girls to a girls' school. Enrollment is currently 51 percent boys and 49 percent girls. Christians make up 65 percent of students, but more and more Christians are leaving Palestine.

One of Dürr's main concerns is changing the focus on rote learning engrained in Palestinian curricula. Methodological and social competence is not a particular goal there, despite the fact that these are the skills necessary in a global job market today. The potential of the school's students has been demonstrated by several girls who have graduated and gone on to obtain leading positions.

For example, Kholoud Diabes Abu Dayyeh, an independent recently designated Minister for Tourism and Family Affairs in the National Unity government, which is now an interim government. "She speaks German fluently and is versed in European thinking, but can also negotiate with Hamas or Fatah." This is the type of people Palestine needs, says Dürr.

Mona Sarkis

© 2007

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