Meet our Kids!
When Farah first came to my class, she was a reluctant participant. She seemed shy and was at times unwilling to work with others in a group. I remember one particular incident during the second week of classes when the students were divided into groups to make kites. The students were assigned to a group using a numbering system that mixed the different neighborhoods represented in the class. Farah was not happy to be placed in a group of strangers and refused to participate when her group began assembling their kite. I tried to encourage her to talk with the other girls and make new friends, but she wasn't interested. Each time one of her classmates offered her a piece of tape to help secure the edges of the kite, she answered with a "tsk," to indicate her disinterest. For a few weeks, her protests at being assigned to a table that didn't include her friends from the New Askar Camp persisted, but they eventually subsided and were replaced by a real interest in the class projects.
In Andrew's music class, Farah is one of the brightest students. She is keen to learn how to play new instruments and has a sense of competitiveness that drives her to try her best at everything. In my class, Farah has turned into a blooming artist. It's not uncommon for Farah to be the last student working on her project, begging for more time before going to her music lesson. She typically makes a faithful copy of the teacher example that is presented at the beginning of each lesson, but she is making strides to explore her own creativity. Last week's lesson introduced the students to the landscape paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and Impressionist techniques. Farah has now moved on to copying the works of the masters, creating her rendition of "Starry Night". Her night sky is is a swirl of pinks, yellows, and blues over a little village.
Farah's smile is now a regular feature that I look forward to seeing every Tuesday and Thursday and I can't wait to see where her creativity takes her next.
It's 1pm on a Tuesday and I've barely finished my lunch, yet one eager pupil I haven't seen for a while has shown up an hour and a half early and is following me around my classroom as I stick up new posters for the lesson ahead. Catching sight of the musical instruments resting in the corner, random tapping, blowing and strumming commence; the child's deeply inquisitive nature directed by a desperately short attention span. With intentioned ferocity, fingers strike as many (rather out-of-tune) piano keys as possible, then a furrowed brow looks up at me - part excitement and part bewilderment at the novel sounds emanating from deep inside this colossal machine. And all the time he is telling me his thoughts, feelings, fears and frustrations in Arabic, as though I understand.
Let me introduce you to a great friend of mine: TYO celebrity, ukelele virtuoso, and undisputed soup-eating champion, the legendary 8 year-old Mahmoud. Mahmoud stepped into my classroom on day one in dusty sandals and sweater, slightly later than all the other kids. He struggled to grasp the simple rhythmic name game we were playing, and then we never saw him again. After a phone call to his parents, he reappeared two weeks later - very early, and very eager to be back. It emerged later that Mahmoud had unfortunately got confused on his first day and was under the impression he wasn't allowed to return. It's just one example of Mahmoud's challenges, which has prevented him from attaining both academic achievement and self-confidence in social environments.There's still an hour to go before class, so I let him mess around on my laptop with looping samples on Garageband. He points to the screen and asks me a long string of questions. I still don't understand. But when he starts crying because he's cut his knee running up the concrete steps outside, I understand. And when he is shivering while waiting for the bus because of his insufficient winter clothes, I understand. And when I place my hand on his shoulder and he squirms, because all that lies there under there is sensitive and bruised skin and bone, I understand.
My favorite memory of Mahmoud is from the end of Color Games. Injured, wet, and cold, Mahmoud ran back to his team clutching a large puzzle piece and had a volunteer read him the simple Arabic instruction on the back. "I love Palestine! I love Palestine! I love Palestine! I love Palestine!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, punching the air each time with an unusual boldness. The spectacle of this brown team trooper, simple yet somehow so self-confident, drew rapturous applause from all of his teammates, and Mahmoud marched back to his place, head held high, leaving his inhibition behind him.
I'm so glad he came back.
There are always those children with extra challenges, some people call them "problem kids, troubled, bad." I don't believe in pigeon holing these children into these narrow labels so often used by the school systems. For one thing, all of the children we work with come from situations that make them act the way they do. They are refugee children growing up in poverty without adequate resources and support. We purposefully cater to those who need the most attention in the refugee camps, those children whose parents don't know what to do with them, who don't regularly attend school etc. In our classes at TYO there is always a couple of these children who call for more attention. They fail to stand still, listen to directions or respect anyone - least of all themselves. Because of their home lives, we cannot blame them for their varied behavioral issues.
Mojahad is one of these children.
Upon our first couple of classes we realized that he needed extra support. His initial assessment form was empty. So we called his mother and asked if she would come in and meet with our Psychosocial Program Manager. She did and candidly told us his story.
His story is filled with violence, neglect, abuse and struggle.
Mojahad comes from a family of 10. With a young mother and a father suffering from seizures, he lives in his small home in the heart of Nablus. As an infant, he was passed around to relatives when his mother ran away from his father to escape abuse. Nobody could get him to stop crying so he eventually was returned to his father. At this time he suffered from lack of care at a critical moment of his development. As he grew up, the second intifada broke out. His father's seizures have been psychologically passed down to his brothers. When the father began to shake, the brothers did - Mojahad did. Abuse usually followed the episodes, as the cycle of violence continued it course. Mojahad goes to school but does not actually attend classes, hanging out with the maintenance man all day. His teachers could not handle him so they dismissed him from class. His mother told us he cannot read but is quick with his numbers.
Mojahad comes to my class as a 10 year old boy who works to help support his family. On the Eid break, one of my volunteers was shopping late at night when he saw Mojahad pushing an old cart through the city center selling things. My volunteer rushed over and bought a bunch of things, concerned that his student was working so late at night on the Muslim holiday. No wonder he is good with his numbers, learning first hand how to count change.
We have committed to doing what we can for Mojahad. Most importantly not dismissing him due to his misbehavior. Life has hit him with a lot so far and like many children here, he has been forced to grow up too fast. His desire for constant attention has lead us to assign a volunteer to him who stays with him at all times. Mojahad is in my sports class and in art class with Aimee. These two classes were recommended by our Psychosocial Program Manager - sports to let out his physical energy and art as a space for personal expression and healing. When he is working on an art project, his attention is captivated - working on a clay figure, drawing a turtle, making a mosaic Palestinian flag.
One of my first classes, he kept interrupting me as I explained the game, frustrated I asked my translator what he was saying. He was explaining the game, he already knew it. So I asked him to explain it to the entire class. With hesitation he stepped up next to me and began. He did a good job, my translator and I had nothing to add. Some days are not as smooth, one step forward and two steps back as they say. But slowly he has begun to find a different kind of reality here, where he is not a child trying to be an adult, where he gets attention for good behavior and where people show him respect.
Earlier in the week, Mojahed impressed me. He participated with his team in a scavenger hunt. I made him the leader so he was on his best behavior leading his team throughout the building. As they marched he shouted out the instructions. I was proud. Yesterday was a bit more difficult. His attention span was zero. He could not participate with the group games and he wanted to sit out and watch. Eventually, he joined in the game as he saw the other children having fun. Some days it just take more patience and creative distractions to meet his needs. Over all, his big smile, his endearing desire to lead the class and his eagerness for being here have won all of us over. He found TYO on his own. He was not registered but walked to the center all the way from Nablus' Old City. He may not be a student at school, but now, he is a student at TYO.
I must make a confession - I've fallen in love with mime artistry this week and have really enjoyed learning some skills and passing them on to the kids! They were all really engaged in the classes and enjoyed learning a very funny mime sequence in time with a soundtrack of noises (such as knocking on and opening a door to be surprised by the sound of chickens clucking). After class, one boy was keen to show the other children and my fellow interns what he had learned. He put on an enthusiastic impromptu mime performance and even took a bow when applauded at the end. That boy was Noor.In my first couple of weeks at TYO I became very familiar with Noor, he would often be hanging around in the centre and was always keen to chat with the staff and to get help with with his reading and writing. For several months, Noor has been attending the hugely popular homework help service run by our fantastic volunteers and was always very excited to learn more and improve. One day, during the first couple weeks of our classes, Noor was on the edge of the playing area watching one of Abi's sports classes as they played a game. So Abi invited him to take part, which he was more than happy to do! Noor has now become a regular member in our drama and sports activities. And he has even brought along some of his friends!
As we spoke about in our blog post last week, there are many comparisons that we have made between our work here and our previous experiences in other settings. Noor reminds me in many ways of lots of children that I worked with in the UK who have a sweet and likable personality, but struggle at times in a classroom environment due to learning difficulties or short attention spans. Like all the kids here, Noor is very friendly and polite, he will often run up to me in the corridors here at TYO to shake my hand and say hello and he is always one of the first children to arrive for class.
In class, his enthusiasm is evident as he is always excited to try new things and participate in every activity, which is always appreciated. Unfortunately, at times, his enthusiasm can get the better of him and he can get a little carried away. It is at times like these that he actually reminds me a little of myself when I was his age and attending school in Surrey, England. In certain classes I would also find it difficult to focus on the task and became disruptive, causing great frustration to my teachers. So when I hear myself saying "Noor, listen please!", it reminds me of my own teachers making similar pleas to me and of course makes me feel a little embarrassed about my younger self.
I am very grateful to those teachers who were patient with me and helped me to focus, and as a result, I am committed to supporting children like Noor in the same way. With great assistance from our volunteer teams, Abi and I have have been working hard to help Noor to keep focus as well as offering him extra help with the occasional short writing/reading task. We have also been making sure we reward his positive behavior whenever possible. As a result, we are seeing some changes as he is slowly becoming much more focused and cooperative. Working with Noor, I have been reminded once again of the importance of creating the best possible chances for every child to succeed. Although Noor still has good days and bad days, it is really heartening to see him making progress within our classes and it's amazing to see him become such a talented and enthusiastic performer. He's going to be a star!