A Conversation With Ibrahim Issa, Director of Hope Flowers School

On March 15, the Board of U.S. Friends of Hope Flowers School and Humanitarian Social Innovations (HSI) gathered for a virtual conversation with the director of Hope Flowers School (HFS), Ibrahim Issa. With HSI’s Linda Rentschler moderating, together they discussed updates about the school, funding efforts, and the challenges faced by the school’s staff and students.

As Ibrahim began to speak, attendees were able to read a framed message hung on the wall behind him: “Together We Co-Create Our Emerging Future.” These words are the slogan of Hope Flowers Center and its community outreach program, but they are also the mission of every person who gathered on the call that day—an appropriate mantra to set the tone of the meeting, which was the group’s first opportunity to gather together and meet Ibrahim.

“Without your support, we could not do the work we are doing here. Your support is more than financial support,” Ibrahim began. “In all these years, in all the challenges we have faced in Hope Flowers, in our community, I think the first people I think to consult with are the U.S. Friends of Hope Flowers. So thank you so much for being there, I’m really very thankful for you all, for all your support to the children, the school and the community here.” 

Ibrahim recounted that he came to HFS in the year 2000. The son of HFS’ founder, Ibrahim shared that he actually started out in the educational track of mechanical engineering. However, when his father passed away, he decided to step in to help the school. What he had expected to be a six-month stay turned into a year, which turned into 22 when violence in the area made Ibrahim realize that his true place was in Bethlehem.  

“The violence was immense, the whole area has fallen in violence; and my thought was, I want to help HFS to overcome this…I never thought that my work would last for 22 years, but now I’m 22 years later and still doing the work that my father started, and I have strong dedication to continue this work,” he said.

HFS began in 1984 with the goal of starting a new generation of Israeli-Palestinians who believe in coexistence and peace. The school operates in the morning and afternoon but is not limited to education, responding also to student’s basic needs. Ibrahim shared that nearly 53 percent of the parents of students at HFS are unemployed, leaving them unable to afford basic needs for their children. According to international reports, one out of two Palestinians is classified as “poor,” and food insecurity affects almost three-quarters of the Palestinian population. HFS serves to help children who are malnourished, who can’t afford uniforms and supplies, who need trauma counseling and/or special services, and who could use a safe place to be rather than on the streets. The school also employs parents of students, who offer their services in return for tuition for their children.

In 2022, HFS provided 48 full and 83 partial scholarships, allowing almost 40 percent of children at the school to benefit from scholarships.

“Without your support, it would have been very difficult to provide these services,” Ibrahim said.

In response to board member questions posed during the Q&A period of the meeting, Ibrahim spoke about struggles that the school faces, including infrastructure in and around the school (from road closures, to lack of heating and electricity in classrooms) and even violence in the area, noting that these are immense obstacles to providing proper education and comfort for the students. This ties in largely to the political climate in the West Bank, which leads HFS to confront greater challenges than other schools. Located in Area C of the West Bank, most children must be bussed to the school, and they often face checkpoints from Israeli soldiers, which can prevent them from reaching schools or escalate into violence. Home searches, shootings and other violence present the staff and students at HFS with new and unexpected obstacles each day. School starts at 8 a.m., but teachers arrive about an hour and a half early, and stay about an hour after, to make sure everything is safe and in order for the students to attend school.

Ibrahim shared that in one tragic event, a 14-year-old student who found himself in a clash with an Israeli soldier was shot and killed. Ibrahim himself lived through a heartbreakingly similar situation, but luckily, his story ended differently: he was shot in the leg and survived.

“Being a victim doesn’t mean that you are involved in violence. For me, it is about killing the next generation of Palestinians, which is really feeling very difficult for me. This is why we created the afternoon program—it’s especially for these children, instead of staying in the streets in the afternoon and clashing with soldiers and finding themselves victims in these conflicts. It’s to create opportunities for them and to protect them,” Ibrahim said. “I was shot when I was a boy on the 13th of July 1989. The 13th of July 2021, I decided to celebrate that event. I had gathered a group of friends and family members at that day and told them what I have achieved between 13th July of 1989 and 13th July of 2021. This child, this boy who has been killed—if we had managed to protect him, if he was given better circumstances, probably in 30 years’ time he would contribute to building for peace, or his community, to have a family and to have a better world. And this is the challenge I think now for us is to protect these children.”

The assistance that U.S. Friends of Hope Flowers School, and other affiliated friends, offer to HFS is crucial, Ibrahim said. Assistance for tuition fees dropped following the Covid-19 pandemic, and while they have increased slightly since then, the money coming in is still not enough. On top of that, Ibrahim explained that they lost a lot of support during the Trump administration. All of these factors make the school very dependent on aid from donors and friend organizations around the globe.

Sadly, a 2018 USAID grant was halted, and although they were promised another grant in 2019, that one was stopped, too. As a result, the school had to cut its services and lost nearly half of its staff. But thanks to two grants from the European Union and Germany in January 2022, HFS was able to invest in its program for autistic children’s support services, which was found to be one of the best projects supported by the European Union in an external evaluation that then recommended future aid for HFS. Soon, the school will apply for another USAID grant to support and extend the program for children’s disabilities. Outside of these important focus programs, Ibrahim identified teacher salaries and basic needs—including hot meals, uniforms, winter clothes and school supplies for children who cannot afford them—as the greatest financial demands within the school.

Looking ahead, Ibrahim reiterated the value gleaned from the support of U.S. Friends of Hope Flowers School, along with that of other friends of Hope Flowers, located in the Netherlands, UK and Switzerland.

“It’s very important for us that our friends know about our situation, and also being involved at different levels to support—not just financially, but by thinking together,” Ibrahim said. “We all have one interest—to support HFS and the children. And this is something we cannot do alone here. It’s very important to do things together, and to keep our friends informed and involved in that.”

Program Chair Mary Lou Leiser Smith added that Congressman David Price is going to be retiring, which presents a concern for Hope Flowers School. But she and Ibrahim have identified a new opportunity through a colleague whom Congressman Price sits on the appropriations committee with: Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton, who indicated that she would be supportive of the organization in the future.

Mary Lou noted that Congressman Price is a part of her church, which is how this connection was initially made and continued. She said that many hours have been spent working with Congressman Price’s foreign aid on behalf of HFS, which has yielded a link to USAID that they hope will turn into a successful application. 

“It shows the importance of really keeping at working with whoever is in our district, especially if they have some important budgetary connections,” Mary Lou said.

The US Friends of Hope Flowers were pleased to hear that there were members of the delegation who voiced a willingness to support the school’s work. At the time of the Zoom call, Ibrahim had not yet received any further communication.

The conversation concluded on a note that above all rang of—what else—the school’s namesake: hope for a brighter future—thanks to the hard work, dedication and passion of all those on this call, and many others who are working to make Hope Flowers School grow.