All About our Moms
Every morning at 11 am, the ladies from The Women’s Group begin shuffling past me for class – aerobics on Mondays and Wednedays and Beginner’s IT on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We trade salaam aleikums and sabaah al-kheers as I do my best to converse with them in Arabic while waiting for Hanin, my translator, to arrive.
Like the kids that we serve, many of the women hail from the refugee camps and other underprivileged areas of Nablus, and though I don’t know the details of their stories, I know that many of them have led difficult lives with great responsibility and little support, steering their families through years of conflict and uncertainty.
But if there is an Arabic phrase for joie de vivre, these women have it in spades, at least during their mornings at TYO. They tease us, ask how they can get as skinny as we are, and don’t shy away from telling us about how we should adjust our lesson plans. First things first: the women are so much fun. During cardio dance, Claudia and I played some American swing music and demonstrated a hip-bumping move, which apparently looked enough like belly-dancing for one of the women to pull out her mobile to play an Arabic song, clearly her preference over Glenn Miller. In the last few minutes, an impromptu dance party broke out, starting with one woman and snowballing to include a whole group of them. I have also really enjoyed bringing my various life experiences into the classroom. Who knew that my Groupon for a month of Bikram yoga would translate into valuable on-the-job skills when we turned up the heat in the conference room and walked the women through different yoga positions?
When the women, young and old, first entered my IT class, only one or two of them even knew how to turn on a computer. Like most Americans of my generation and socioeconomic background, I was fortunate enough to grow up using a computer, so the skills associated with it are second nature to me. Witnessing the women struggle to do simple tasks like scrolling down, I have realized that what comes naturally to me because it’s been ingrained – whether computer skills or cultural norms – does not to someone with no experience in that context. More concretely, I’m learning how to break everything down into its smallest component parts as I’ve walked the women through right-, left-, and double-click, “Save” vs. “Save As,” and how when text is highlighted anything new that you type will replace it.
I deeply admire the sense of humor with which the women approach new experiences. When something goes wrong, like when they accidentally erase all their work, they are much more likely to giggle than to get frustrated. On Valentine’s Day, for instance, I showed the women how to create heart shapes in Microsoft Word, something that some of the older women struggled with. Sa‘ida, who had successfully created a few hearts, giggled and joked to the less-successful Ruwaida, “you can have one of mine, I have extra!” When I taught the women how to use Excel to create budgets, a few of them were giggling and low-fiving each other, saying they didn’t want their husbands to find out about the program, because then they’d see what their wives actually spent money on. It is tempting to get frustrated when learning new things, especially when you suspect that others are catching on faster than you, and so I admire the women’s willingness to put themselves outside their comfort zones.
Teaching the moms’ classes has also provided me with some valuable perspective on my own learning process at TYO. Starting this internship required learning skills and processes that people more experienced with this work may take for granted – monitoring and evaluation, initial and final assessments – in addition to the learning curve of teaching art for the first time. If the women can learn computers with such patience and grace, I can surely learn how to manage a classroom without throwing a temper tantrum of my own. We all have something to learn and something to teach, and the balance between the two helps me empathize with my students and reassures me about my own missteps along the way.
I am so appreciative of the opportunity to work with these beautiful, intelligent, hilarious, individualistic women, and of the space that TYO provides them to be themselves.
It's hard to believe that we are at the halfway point of our internship. It seems like we arrived last week, making our way around Nablus with our driver Munir, visiting the Old City, and planning our curricula. Simultaneously, I can feel time slipping away, and I'm anxious to experience as much of Nablus as possible. Considering how much has changed since I arrived, I can't help but reflect on my classes at the center. In the case of women's aerobics, I wonder whether or not the women are becoming more fit. While we won't be assessing their fitness levels until the end of the session, we can already see so many changes, not just in fitness.
In our first week teaching aerobics, Nawal and I had a tough time even getting the women to quiet down for class. Speaking through our translator Hanin, we were constantly yelling over them to get their attention. For our initial skills assessment, we asked our class to perform a series of push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, and squats. We quickly realized that not only did we need to build strength and endurance, we also had to start with fundamentals of form and technique.
After the first two weeks, we began Arabic lessons with Hanin after work. Having translated for TYO for a few years, she knows exactly the types of lessons we need for our classes. We've become experts at giving commands such as “sit down!”, “stand up”, and “faster." Using these commands in Arabic does a lot to simplify translation in the classroom and makes workouts more effective. Thanks to Hanin, we're able to spend more time correcting form and technique and less on translation issues.
Our classroom is a large room in our center: large enough for yoga or aerobics, but not ideal for activities that include running or a lot of movement. Going outside or to different areas in the center is difficult, as most women arrive in modest dress and change for class. Because of this, I really wanted to have the women run the stairs of our building. Luckily, our building has 6 floors. The first time we suggested stair exercises, we were met with a lot of resistance. During the exercises themselves, some women would fold their arms and declare “khalas!” (finished!). It became clear that many of our women have a different idea of what yoga is than we do. After a few strenuous poses, there was a general mutiny of, “this isn't yoga!"
However, in each class we're noticing a little less whining and complaining and a little more motivation and hard work. There's no doubt that all the women who come to TYO are strong and resilient. They are all responsible for their households and their children, some are also wage-earners. We all know how hard it can be to find time in our schedules to exercise, the fact that these women keep coming back week after week shows that TYO must be doing something right.
Having minored in Gender, Culture, & Society in University, women’s empowerment is an issue of great interest to me. For this reason, I was delighted to discover that in addition to the youth, I would be working with some of the ladies here in Nablus. I have the pleasure of teaching two classes to TYO’s women’s group, Aerobics and Advanced IT. While the two courses differ greatly in terms of content, I leave both classes each day with the same feelings of satisfaction and optimism.
The women are extremely grateful for anything and everything that they are taught and are always eager to learn more. In fact, one of the biggest challenges I face is having the classes dismiss at the designated time. Almost always, the ladies will linger after class, either to ask questions, show their work, or just to have the opportunity to thank me firsthand for the services being provided to them. It is very clear how important TYO is to the women here, and each day, it is rewarding to see them benefitting from our programs.
Even though I have been blessed with experiencing Palestinian hospitality almost everywhere, it is in these classes that I find it to be most evident. I have only been teaching for five short weeks, and I truly feel like these women have accepted me with open arms. I have received invitations for dinners, been given cards and small gifts, and have even had my eyebrows threaded by one young woman aspiring to become a salon owner. While teaching a lesson on photo editing in my IT class, several students asked me to be in their pictures, simply because they wanted to have an image to remember me by. They have made me feel so welcome in this country, giving me exactly the kind of comfort that one needs when one is so far away from home.
Sometimes, their cheerful spirits are so infectious that I forget the situations that they are coming from. Almost all the women come to us from refugee camps, where they are raising children in living conditions that can be abysmal. Coupled with a society that often condones mistreatment towards them, I am in awe at their resilience. While I always thought that I was a strong, independent woman, these ladies have shown me strength, courage, and independence, in ways that I have not seen before.
In another five weeks, my time at TYO will be up, and I will return to a society where being female doesn’t always hold you back. I will miss all the women I have met here and will be filled with sorrow for having to leave them behind. However, I know that things are looking up for our women. Anyone who has the opportunity to meet these wonderful women would agree with me. Each time they depart from our center, they leave with more skills and knowledge that they will use to enrich their lives and those of those around them. After all the love and affection that they have shown me, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.
Teaching aerobics for the moms of TYO has many times had a therapeutic effect on me. Each class, without fail, the moms walk in through the doors of the conference room and engulf us with warm salutations, handshakes, kisses and hugs. It seems odd to me to bestow so much affection to the people that are going to make every muscle in your body scream in agony, but I’m glad their fondness does not depend on the intensity of the workout.
Working with the moms is in many ways like working with bigger children. They talk incessantly, stopping only to not be reprimanded and then after explanations are given they ask, “What do we do?” The women can eventually be made to listen, unlike their younger counterparts. As energetic as they are when they walk into class, this enthusiasm dissipates the moment we start with warm-ups. Yet, despite claiming that they want slimmer bodies they still will moan and whine if they are made to do more than two push-ups. They seem to think that attending aerobics class alone will perform miracles.
I’m amazed by these women who can still find some peace and joy despite the circumstances they live in. In our last class, I led a disco infused aerobics workout. We had ten minutes left on the clock and I was growing bored of the monotonous routine, so I asked the ladies if they had any dance moves to show us. Immediately, one of the ladies lifted her arms to her right and started swiveling her hips: a belly-dancing party was about to commence. I then had three women pull out their cell phones and fight over which one would be connected to the speakers and provide us with the appropriate music. Finally, shik shak shok won and the dancing began. At first, it was a small crowd of maybe three women but within minutes it tripled. What struck me about this moment is that for the first time I can say that I saw the women genuinely happy. Even our translator Hanin joined the fun. I was glad that in my class, the ladies could find the peace of mind to be themselves and enjoy themselves without repercussions. In the two hours a week they spend in aerobics, the women can feel free to be “haram” and temporarily leave their worries behind.