Schools on wheels come to Taiz.
Shakeeb Jaber did not imagine a day when he would be able to read and write. But when the impossible became possible, the 12-year-old was over the moon.
"When I used to see children going to school, carrying their papers and notebooks, I used to feel ashamed, asking myself: Why can't I go to school like them? I never imagined that I would be able to read and write until the Mobile School came along," Jaber reminisces.
The Mobile School was launched by 20-year-old Hamzah Al-Samee in Taiz in January. It is an imitation of the Mobile School project that was organized by a youth initiative in Sana'a in October 2013. When asked whether he was inspired by Sana'a's Mobile School Al-Samee admitted that he did not know about it.
Instead, he explained, he got the idea from an article he read about mobile schools in Egypt.
Al-Samee's idea was for a bus with teachers and teaching equipment to travel to students in densely populated areas along Calaba, Jamal, and Wadi Al-Qadhi streets in Taiz, where children are often denied basic education. Bringing the school to students, he explains, will make it easier for many children, especially those who are required to work, to receive an education.
The interiors of the bus have a white board and a teacher accommodating 10-15 students per class. As of now, 40 students are registered with the school and teachers provide a daily one hour reading lesson based on the Ministry of Education's curriculum. Classes are held according to the availability of the students and there is a system in place that allocates specific hours for different groups of students. Children like Shakeeb agree with the teachers on a specific time to study.
"I sell bottles of water and tissue boxes on the sidewalk from 8 AM to 9 PM to earn a living. I cannot go to school full-time, so having an hour off to study during the day at the Mobile School is a wonderful thing," Jaber said.
Jaber feels positive now that he can interrupt his work for an hour and attend the Mobile School. "In a few days I hope to speak English," he said.
The number of children working in Yemen stands at 1.6 million and constitutes 21 percent of the total number of 7.7 million Yemeni children, according to the Ministry of Public Affairs and Labor.
"We decided to try and limit the size of this problem through a simple contribution after seeing a huge number of working and street children and their inability to go to school," explains Al-Samee.
As in all start-ups, challenges are inevitable. And such was the case for Al-Samee.
"In the beginning our biggest obstacle was trying to find a place where we could teach our children. Using an empty street was an option, but because of the sun and trespassers, we decided to use the bus I own as a class room. We fitted it with a white board and markers and took it into the street," said Al-Samee.
"During the first day, children were not convinced to get into the bus; they did not know who we are and the teachers were all men," he said.
To overcome that obstacle, on the second day, "we took two girls along with us to teach the students, which made the young children less suspicious. They were able to enter the buses for the first time. The first hour passed peacefully and children began accepting the idea and were very excited."
"The enthusiasm from the children motivated us to do more," he added.
Apart from attracting students to our school, another key challenge was to secure funding to make it sustainable in the long run. So far the funding is taken care of internally. Al-Samee is the biggest contributor, and other volunteers help with small sums of money.
"In the long term we plan to approach businessmen and the government, who said they'll contribute but so far haven't," said Al-Samee.
"In the beginning the project's operation costs amounted to YR70,000 ($326), excluding the costs of the bus, which is a big amount for us. For this reason, we had to market our project with businessmen and traders," said Radwan Al-Absi, a volunteer member in the project's team.
Despite an initial lack of support, he said "money was not an issue for us, and recently we started getting support from a group of traders and people in the community who are positive about the idea [of mobile schools] and see the value of the project and its usefulness to the society."
Volunteers moved by the experience
Buthaina Hajeb, who studies English literature at Taiz University, is one of the teachers in the Mobile School. She describes her volunteer work as "a life changing experience that opened many doors of hope."
"I was encouraged by the children's desire to learn and their speed of learning which I really did not expect."
She added that her experience in teaching those children made her love volunteering and humanitarian work even more because of the tangible and quick results.
Another social activist, Mohammad Al-Ansi, who studies English in Taiz, said, "when I heard about this project I went quickly to the people who started it. Indeed, I have found tangible results and I started volunteering with the team. We truly lack real projects that benefit society and bear a seed of change."
He adds, "I have volunteered in more than one project and I never found a project that has been as fulfilling as this one."
Al-Ansi says the best thing about Mobile Schools is the flexible teaching hours, between 10 AM and 4 PM, which makes it easier for volunteers to contribute.
Support from the Education Ministry?
The teachers who volunteer are university students or young working professionals who work as volunteers in their spare time and are not accredited teachers. So far there are seven teachers, most of whom come from the Amal Initiative. The Amal Initiative is a humanitarian organization in Taiz that has traditionally worked with orphans.
Al-Samee said the stationery they use is first grade reading books, including notebooks and coloring books. The Ministry of Education is willing to supply books from its stock for the Mobile School project, according to Abdulfattah Jamal, the manager of the Ministry of Education's office in Taiz.
Rowaida Al-Maqtari, a member in the project's team, says "we aspire to teach all the courses taught in school and cooperate with the Ministry of Education to issue certificates for the student's we teach."
Jamal said "we would not have a problem with cooperating with the people working on this noble project that serves our own goals if all the subjects were taught to the students."
He added, "in the near future, we will enlist those students as home-schooled and they can apply for the government school exams and in case they pass they will be given certificates through which they can continue their basic and secondary education and university level if it is possible."
When asked whether the ministry is already funding the Mobile School in Sana'a, Ismail Saidan, the media and communication director at the Education Ministry, explained that the ministry has not received any request from those involved in the Sana'a Mobile School project. He added, however, that the ministry is generally willing to expand its support of Mobile Schools from Taiz to Sana'a.
Given the possibility of future government funding, Al Same'ee didn't rule out any expansion plans, admitting they will consider Sana'a and other areas as soon as they have adequate resources in place.
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