A Change in Environment
Our Spring 2012 interns share their first impressions and initial reactions to life in Nablus including touring the Old City, visiting the markets and teaching classes.
I am only four days into my classes here at TYO, and I have already seen some of the startling effects the Occupation has had on the children in Nablus. With a constant military presence and unemployment and poverty rampant, the youth here simply do not have the opportunity to experience childhood as I have come to know it in the United States. This is evidenced not only by the children I have come to know in my classes, but by those seen roaming the city streets.
Walking through the Old City, I see kids playing amongst abandoned cars and in vacant lots, where factories or houses once stood. Bullet holes riddle the concrete of surrounding structures, and the rock is still crumbling from the adjacent buildings, which were lucky enough to withstand the rocket blasts. In place of a ball or toys, a dirt pile and a couple of sticks are used for entertainment. Overhead, F-16 fighter jets fly by regularly, creating a dull roar in the background. This is their playground.
Perhaps even more staggering than witnessing the children playing in these conditions is learning their ages. Little boys and girls, who I would estimate to be 6 or 7, tell me that they’re actually 10, 11, or even 12. It is astonishing just how severe the malnourishment can be here. Yet while it initially shocked me to see how stunted their growth could be, it did not surprise me to learn afterwards that many of the families here eat just one meal a day.
While one can certainly try, no words or pictures can truly describe the sentiments that arise when seeing children growing up under these conditions. As with all dark situations, however, one must look on the bright side. There is an opportunity to change the circumstances here, to create a better future for the youth and community of Nablus. I see it every day at the TYO center here, validated by the smiles of the women and children we serve. It is a long road ahead, but I know that my time here will be worth every minute and truly make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.
It's hard to believe that our first week of classes is already over. I've spent a good amount of time reflecting on my expectations of life in Nablus. One part of coming to Palestine which interested me the most was hearing people's stories firsthand. I'd read so much in the way of history and literature, but I always wanted to feel what it is like to be here. While I felt that understanding these stories would be important for my own development as an intern, I hadn't thought about how deeply ingrained they are to the community and the children here.
In the US, a great deal of significance is place on the ability to shelter young children from anything deemed too scary, overwhelming, or serious. When adults discuss a “grown up” topic, they may speak in whispered voices or children may be shooed from the room. Stories are simplified and filtered for a younger audience in order to protect from unknown dangers.
In Nablus, as we learned from Suhad, our Psychosocial Program Manager, family and community stories are vital to life here. Children as young as 12 have clear memories of direct experience with death as a result of the Second Intifada. It's one thing to know this, and quite another to be confronted with it daily. On our tour of the Old City, we saw countless martyr posters, as well as large empty holes where buildings once stood in crowded streets. Among all these were children playing, undaunted by their surroundings.
I think we all hope to protect children from the harsh realities of the world, but here, shared history binds the community together and fulfills a real need for healing. Stories like those of many Nabulsi families and places like those in the Old City might be avoided in the US, but here in Nablus, they are indispensable parts of daily life.
In touring the Old City in Nablus, we came across many martyr photographs and plaques erected in memory of those lost to violence. During the Second Intifada, a heavy lockdown was implemented in Nablus, which only allowed citizens brief hours a day to go about transactions before the curfew started. There was a great loss of life during the intifada, which in many cases was a result of people not being able to leave their homes and seek adequate care due to the curfew.
Most if not all of the pictures, are of a male figure holding a weapon, which is something I never quite understood. I’ve come across such pictures before in American media, films, etc. and I always wondered how this could be? Is everyone required to take pictures with weapons on chance that they die? Children as well? On the tour I learned that the Arabic word for “martyr” does not have the same simplistic meaning as what we use for its English counterpart. Martyr in Arabic also means “witness”- the people in these photographs are not martyrs (or terrorists as many Western audiences would categorize them) in our understanding of the word. They have not intentionally risked their lives for a cause, but they are witnesses or victims of violence and occupation.
This tour explained so much to me. I now understand that the people in these pictures were not necessarily aggressors, but instead victims of violence and also victims of cultural misunderstandings. At first glance, any uninformed and disinterested Westerner could simply take a look at the compilation of photographs and see it as a tribute to terrorist activity. The photos, which many happen to have been edited and altered to include weapons, are more of a tribute to the loss of life, which is not a foreign concept. In the United States, many people wear clothing or jewelry with pictures of loved ones that have passed away, in an effort to keep their memories alive. Palestinians chose to honor their dead in a different manner, which can be baffling to a foreign audience, but the need to keep the memory of a mother, father, sister, brother alive is something we can all understand.
During my first weeks in Nablus, I’ve been greeted by the unexpected as I’ve begun to experience the texture of Palestinian life, unimaginable from my thesis carrel in Vermont: the milk carton with its name emblazoned in Hebrew, its letters totally incomprehensible to me; the unexpectedly lovely view of Nablus from my bedroom window, the city crawling up the sides of the mountain and all lit up at night; the pleasant hassle when grocery shopping at the fruit store, the nut store, the juice store, the hummus store, and only then the supermarket; the complexities of life in the refugee camps around the city. Because of my semester abroad in Egypt, there have also been some familiar and even comforting patterns to fall into here: marking the days by the call to prayer and drinking strawberry juice at every opportunity.
Amidst these new images and experiences, this first week has also been marked by hints of transformations ahead. On the first day of classes, we went to greet the teary four-to-eight year olds from the core program – an experience that taught me that my Arabic is not comprehensible to little kids and, in fact, just makes them cry harder. By the end of the day, though, their trepidation had dissolved as they stomped and shouted “Ihna shabaab al-Filusteen!” [“We are the youth of Palestine!”] as their teachers led them in a pre-departure chant. Even over the course of a single day, something had changed in them – they found in TYO a place where they could be comfortable and happy. I’ve seen the same process begin in my arts and crafts class. When the children first came in, some of them seemed wary of me and of this new endeavor, but by the end of two classes, even the shyest students grinned as they showed me the paper lanterns they’d cut and decorated.
I don’t yet know these kids’ stories, or the kind of lives the moms are taking time out of when they come to sweat in aerobics class. We’re all getting to know and feel comfortable around each other, but we haven’t yet delved into the students’ conceptions of self or their understanding of their worlds through art. I have barely scratched the surface of the multitudes each child contains – and I can only imagine the transformations that are yet to come, for them and for me. The door is open; I’m just waiting to see what will transpire inside.