Several months before I arrived in Palestine, I was connected with a mutual friend who established a small NGO called “Inspire Dreams, Inc.” A nonprofit organization which uses academics, athletics, and the arts to promote social change, Inspire Dreams holds a summer/afterschool program called Camp “I Have a Dream” for Palestinian refugee youth in the West Bank. For two days before the arrival of 2010, I participated as a camp counselor in the Jalazone refugee camp, engaging youth between the ages of 6-12 in a range of different activities.
Upon entering the camp, you can’t miss the number of kids roaming around. Out of Jalazone’s 15,000 residents, 5,000 are children under the age of 18. They’re everywhere – playing football in the streets, chasing each other with sticks in a game of cops and robbers, or people watching from stone steps leading onto dirt roads. Through Inspire Dreams’ partnership with the Jalazone’s Palestinian Children’s Center, the camp’s youth found a productive and creative outlet through which to not only express their individual talents, but their most intrinsic dreams for themselves and their community.
The first day’s activities were focused on fitness, and led by instructors from Peace Players International, an organization which “uses the game of basketball to unite and educate children and their communities.” In the video below, you can catch a glimpse of the range of activities that the kids participated in:
The second day concentrated on theater and art. Camp organizers started off with a game of “Simon Says” or in this case, “Amer beheki.” Later, there was a photography workshop after which each child received a disposable camera. The center and the streets of Jalazone were soon filled with deafening screams of pure elation when the children learned the cameras were real.
Yet, in those two-days, it was the theater activity that was the most powerful. Each group was given a scenario and told to create a story, assign everyone a character, and act it out for the others. My group was given a “classroom scene” and due to my shameful, beginner-level Arabic speaking skills, it was my stellar co-counselor, Amany, who took the reins in guiding the plot. A beautiful, confident fifteen year old girl from the camp, she helped the children act out a scene that was later explained to me for its resonating significance. It was about a young girl who was good in school and passionate about pursuing further education, but who was under intense pressure from her family to get married instead. It’s a familiar scenario which is being experienced by young women across Palestinian society – as well around the world. The children’s decision to act out this scene simply from being instructed to do something about a “classroom,” is a striking reinforcement for how unfortunately common such a societal pressure is.
It was the “checkpoint” scene that left its mark on me; the performance of which I most easily understood. It was unsettling for me to watch; young children acting out such a tragic, intense scene; and yet at the same time such a normal part of their everyday. I watched, mortified, as an older child forced a younger one to the ground with a stick, yelling at him as a young girl draped with a kuffiyeh over her head wailed. Her fellow female peers held her back, as the older boys dragged away the younger one. Yet, as I held my stomach in horror, the kids held theirs in jest. The sentiment of the room was caught in a dichotomy between my distress and the sound of children’s laughter. Perhaps, though, their response was more appropriate than my own. As disturbing as such facets of the Palestinian struggle are, they are ultimately ridiculously silly; the whole occupation is among mankind’s sickest and longest running jokes.
At the end of the camp, Amany took me and another international counselor on a brief tour of Jalazone; guiding us back to her home to meet her family. They were all ridiculously kind; their eyes and smiles big as they excitedly welcomed us in and offered us tea. Their home was humble and warm; occupied by her sisters and brothers, her sister in laws, her nephews and nieces, and her parents. After visiting her family, we went back to the children’s center to wait for the others to head back to Ramallah. We bonded and joked with the Jalazone counselors over chocolate wafers and juice – which they kept obliging us to take more of. At one point, we heard honking and cheering coming from the streets outside. I ignorantly asked if it was because of New Years. It was not. It was another kind of celebration; a welcoming-home of a young twenty-two year old man that had been incarcerated in an Israeli prison for the last three years. His supposed crime? He was walking home from work past curfew.
Volunteering with the youth of Jalazone was an incredible experience, and I hope to return again soon. Two big thumbs up to the Inspire Dreams Inc. team for their dedication, and hard work in organizing the camp. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my final days in 2009.