The Pope's message that made an inspiring teacher an 'international icon'

Pope Francis delivered powerful words of support for a Palestine teacher helping to make a difference to young lives

On March 13, 2016, Hanan Al Hroub's life was changed forever - as an inspirational message from the Pope made the dedicated teacher an 'international icon'.

It was the day she was declared the winner of the $1 million Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, an accolade celebrating her tireless efforts to support children whose lives had been scarred by violence.

As if her story wasn't powerful enough - she grew up in a Palestine refugee camp before embarking on a career teaching refugees herself - an impassioned message beamed to the award ceremony in Dubai from Pope Francis brought an audience to tears.

Pope Francis announced the winner of the Global Teacher Prize, an annual award paying homage to educators across the world, through a video message, happily agreeing to deliver words of support to honour her achievements.

He praised Ms Al Hroub for teaching children about the 'joy of life" and playing an important role in shaping young minds.

Vikas Pota, chairman of the Varkey Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gems education group, was in the room that evening when the pontiff offered his congratulations.

"When the pope’s video came on you could see streams of tears in everyone’s eyes because they couldn’t believe this was actually happening,” said Mr Pota.

"We had 10 contenders for the prize and Hanan's reaction on winning was priceless. I think it was fuelled by the fact that the Pope announced her the winner.

"What she did was remarkable. There was a sense of achievement. 'I did it!' she said. That made her an international icon not just in Palestine but all over the world."

To have a Catholic Pope recognise a Muslim woman in a hijab from Palestine is a really powerful statement.

Through mere words, the Pope demonstrated that he is a unifying force for good in the world.

"That the Pope announced a Palestinian winner, that brings a big change in perception at least," said Mr Pota.

"To have a Catholic Pope recognise a Muslim woman in a hijab from Palestine is a really powerful statement. In terms of symbolism, I don’t think you can get any more powerful when it comes to education and the purpose of education.

"I know that teachers have a very soft spot in his heart and that is why he is supportive of the cause and of making sure the world’s accelerators of change are promoted and are spoken of in a very very positive way.

"The pope wanted to take it a step further, and knowing her origins, he wanted to celebrate her victory," he said.

Mr Pota believes the Pope accepted the invitation to address the ceremony in the "spirit of inclusivity".

"Our relationship with the Pope and the Vatican is something we cherish greatly. “Pope Francis has brought a spirit of inclusivity and openness and through that has embraced people of different backgrounds, faiths cultures and ways of life."

Mr Pota explained that when the pope was the archbishop of Buenos Aires he founded an organisation called Scholas Occurrentes to ensure young people have access to education.

"It is through that organisation that we have built an institutional relationship with the Vatican.

"It was easy to persuade him to announce the winner of our prize, which went to a Palestinian teacher. It is exactly because of that fact, I believe, that he accepted the invitation. He wants to show a spirit of inclusivity, openness and the fact that we are all the same.”

Pope Francis attends a farewell ceremony at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama January 27, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

After she won the prize, Ms Al Hroub visited the Vatican, where she was blessed by the Pope.

Mr Pota said public awareness of the Global Teacher Prize soared after the Pope’s involvement.

"When it comes to the awareness of the Global teacher prize as an initiative, we had an unprecedented number of nominations and applications.

"The publicity that this announcement achieved was very significant not just for us but for the teaching profession.

"We want teachers to be held in the same regard as doctors and this is what is achieved when someone so powerful and someone so holy comes and shares the light that is on him with a teacher.”

The message that the Varkey Foundation aims to share is that education excellence is not reserved countries that do well in international league tables.

Incredible heroes with remarkable stories can be found all over the world.