The Perfect Storm

Claire smiles with girls from her afternoon class at TYO For the last six weeks as a TYO intern, I have been implementing an English and psychosocial curriculum for my class of 4th and 5th grade students who come from Nablus’ refugee camps and Old City. TYO aims to provide a safe and fun learning environment for its beneficiaries; our curriculum emphasizes creative thinking and non-formal approaches to education through experiential learning. The students, many of whom have been previously enrolled in TYO’s Core program, are at a critical age for social and emotional development. At the beginning of the session, I saw in theory how TYO’s psychosocial curricula would aid students’ development in this area. After weeks of building relationships with my students and watching them engage in activities, I witnessed a shift in my students. We have worked hard to construct a trusting class environment, and last week my students finally felt comfortable enough to test the strength of this new support system. When an activity I led gave students an outlet to express themselves, the students took the opportunity to do so. Through a facilitated discussion by our psychosocial director, Suhad, my students confronted their emotions in a constructive way. My class dove headfirst into the storming stage of group development, demonstrating their progression as individuals and as a group.

According to UNRWA, the majority of the refugee population in the West Bank suffers from moderate to severe reactions to trauma. Children are continually exposed to trauma due to “armed conflict and internal violence, as well as from…land confiscation, home demolitions and evictions and the construction of the Barrier and settlements” (2011). The strained mental health of the Nabulsi community prevents individuals from reaching their potential to be healthy and fully contributing community members. Children are the most vulnerable population to suffer from trauma, which is why TYO has created a safe environment in which children have access to the resources and education to support their personal development.

In my psychosocial class we have worked on building self-confidence, emotional intelligence, community identity, and a sense of global belonging, We have discussed the relationship between these topics and students’ emotional responses to them. However, we do so in a way that is interactive and fun. My students expressed their emotions by creating skits about how to resolve conflict with family members. Students pushed themselves to do an obstacle course while wearing a heavy backpack, symbolizing how harboring negative feelings can be burdensome. We have also focused on positive outlets for self-expression, including one of my favorite lessons this session where my students had the opportunity to teach me about Palestinian culture and, specifically, dabke. Students’ reactions to these activities have been positive, and they show little resistance because the activities are meant to engage them physically and mentally.

In our final week of classes, however, I saw a different reaction from my students. We did an activity in which students sitting in a circle were given a piece of paper to start a drawing. After one minute of drawing to music, the students passed the paper to their peer, and this continued until everyone had contributed to each other’s original picture. My students got frustrated with one another, as some students were being disrespectful and scribbling on others’ papers. I could feel the tension rising and I saw that this activity, rather than being fun and creative, was stressful. The activity became a conduit for the underlying emotional and social dynamics of our classroom to emerge.

With Suhad’s help, my students opened up to one another. They expressed feelings of frustration they felt towards certain peers for their disrespectful actions. Certain students admitted they felt jealous of their peers for their drawing ability. Other students aired grievances from their personal lives that manifested themselves in the classroom. Suhad explained to me how now that my students feel comfortable and safe in our classroom; they are able to confront these emotions. After the intensity of what had happened, I took my students outside for a simple activity in which we tossed tennis balls to one another. I took a deep breath as I felt my students let go of the negative feelings they carried to class that day. I was happy to see that my students could once again be carefree and full of laughter. In an environment in which my students live under the constant mental strain of military occupation, TYO provides them the opportunity to regain part of their childhood.

This particular class was an enlightening experience for me. In theory, I am aware of the challenges facing refugee youth in Palestine. But during this class, I finally witnessed how much pressure my students are under and how little emotional support they receive. In an environment that stifles and hinders psychosocial development, TYO’s programs are an essential step towards fostering positive personal growth for Nabulsi youth. Though my time is coming to an end as a TYO intern, I take comfort knowing that TYO’s sustainable approach to youth development will continue to facilitate the growth my students. Now that the storm has passed, my students are more prepared to navigate the challenges of growing up.

-Claire is a Fall 2014 International Intern at TYO