Growing up in Southern Illinois, swimming was a central part of summer activities. Each spring was spent in anticipation of the time when days would become warm enough to jump into water and play with friends. In this region of the United States, the high number of lakes, rivers, and ponds also make swimming skills necessary for safety. My parents made it their mission to ensure I participated in swim lessons from a young age. Although it took a long time for me to put my face underwater, I learned to count on swimming as an enjoyable and key element to my summer adventures.
As an adult, swimming became more than child’s play. The ability to float freely gives the body complete freedom of movement without the weight of one’s own body. The freedom of picking up my feet and feeling the water support me is an important part of my mental and emotional health as it is a place where I feel joy, comfort, and stress wash away. For me, being in water is as important as it is enjoyable.
As an American learning about the lives of local Palestinians and families living in refugee camps, I was shocked to learn that the majority of the children who participate in TYO programs have never had the opportunity to be immersed in water. It was hard for me to process this information. The children had never been immersed in water? Ever? No bathtub? No swimming pool? No trips to the sea 60 miles from where they live? How was it possible that such a central part of my childhood didn’t exist for these kids?
While it seemed unbelievable, there are clear reasons the students don’t spend time playing in water. Homes in the refugee camps don’t have the luxury of a bathtub and in the heat of the summer, families hope there will be enough water to both shower and do laundry. While there is a swimming pool in Nablus, the cost of transportation to reach the location and the price of entry is much more than what refugee families have to spend on entertainment. The city of Nablus is within an hour from the Mediterranean Sea, but obstacles including the ability to travel and financial limitations drastically decrease, if not completely remove, the children’s exposure to places outside their immediate neighborhoods. My heart broke as I recognized these children had never known the joy of swimming with friends on a hot day or freedom of floating freely without the weight of the world on their shoulders.
This summer, many children at TYO got to experience this freedom for the first time in their lives. Through the support of a group of Americans who recognized the need for children to have simple fun, TYO was able to take the students to a swimming pool for the first time. I watched as a group of 5 year old girls slowly made their way into the shallow end of the pool. For several minutes, they stood still with only slight hand movements as they walked further into the pool. After a short time, they started to slow move their bodies more. They began to jump to create waves and splash each other. Some adults held the students as they showed them how to float. As I dodged splashes on the edge of the pool, I listened to the laughing and shouts coming from the kids experiencing the freedom of water for the first time. It was an exhilarating moment for everyone. I watched the children laugh and play with complete abandon and grinned as the kids were able to just be kids for awhile.
For me, I am constantly reminded of the privileged life I experienced growing up in Southern Illinois. My childhood is filled with memories that seem common place for youth from my region and I have always been thankful for the happy and curious childhood I experienced. As an adult, I am thankful for the opportunity to witness children who deserve much more than circumstances allow having their own adventures that I so often took for granted. I am thankful for people who seek to give kids the chance to float free for the first time in their lives. I am thankful for their laughter and splashes, for their bravery to try something new, and for the joy they so freely shared with me from the water.
– Lindsey, International Internship & Fellowship Coordinator