Love is All Around
Part of TYO's vision here in Nablus is to empower members of the community by providing programs such as our after-school, Core Program, and the Women's Group. One of the most important ways we work on empowerment is by enabling self-expression. During our orientation, we were introduced to the psychosocial aspects of TYO's programs. We were told that many of our students could be dealing with underlying feelings of anger, guilt, or shame. So, I was prepared to see these emotions and to hear painful stories, but I was completely unprepared for the outpouring of love that comes with them.
I teach three classes at the center: Sports and Games to 9 and 10 year olds, Women's Fitness to mothers, and English to TYO staff and university volunteers. Every Monday and Wednesday morning at 9:30, Nawal and I teach women's fitness to 30 moms ages 20 – 40. We incorporate cardio, pilates, yoga, strength training. Last week, we did 15 minutes of running the stairs of our building – I thought the women might never come back. But this week they returned, more dedicated than before. It's wonderful to see that they trust us -from asking Nawal endless health questions, to their willingness to try any crazy new exercise we throw at them. The strength of these women is unbelievable. Just knowing that many of them return home from the center to take care of a family of 6 or 8 or 12 people, in conditions that are less than ideal at best, is inspiring. I'm overwhelmed by their kindness, generosity and love; and most of all their desire to share those feelings with us.
Each afternoon, I teach Sports and Games to children who come to the center twice a week. By far it is my most challenging class, but also the most rewarding. After working with the kids for a month, my volunteers and I are finally seeing a more stable classroom dynamic. Almost every day we face the problem of overzealous physical expression. Like many 9 and 10 year olds, our students love to push in line or give a little shove to command someone's attention. I've instituted a policy of 10 push-ups for anyone shoving in the classroom. In one class this week, I asked a girl who had been pushing in line to do push-ups. She staunchly refused and therefore spent the rest of the class not participating. During class, I had been tough and detached, not allowing her to join the class until completing her push-ups; but at lunch I was able to talk with her and discuss the importance of a safe environment for everyone in the class. Later, as I was lining up the students for my second class, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the same girl, telling me she wanted to to the push-ups before she left for the day. I felt so proud of her, and I knew that her feelings most likely changed when I took a moment to show love in my own self-expression.
My third class is teaching English to a group of female staff and volunteers at the center. They're all college graduates who've studied some English before, so between us all we can communicate in simple English and Arabic. These eight women are all patient and supportive, even to the point that they won't tell me if I teach an entire lesson on grammar they already know. Today I asked the class to tell me what it means to be a woman in Palestine. The first response was that it is hard. Then the others chimed in, saying that women are workers, mothers, supporters, caregivers, mourners, and friends. One student said, “women are half of the society, and necessary for its success”. For a beginners' English class, I was impressed. This is just another example of the type of self-expression that TYO works to foster. All the responses were honest and open, full of pride and love.
It seems like everywhere you look at TYO, there are countless examples of love and all that goes with it: kindness, support, enthusiasm, and generosity, to name a few. This is just one of the many reasons our work is important, and why it's a pleasure to be part of it.
Nablus is no stranger to Valentine’s Day; the hearts and cupids plastered around the downtown area are a testament to that. (Between that, Twilight, and SpongeBob, sometimes it seems that only the cheesiest possible fragments of American culture have made it over here.) But as I’ve introduced love-and-appreciation-themed lessons in my moms’ and kids’ classes this week, I’ve gotten a variety of responses. When I wished my kids a Happy Valentine’s Day, Noor said something like “what, did somebody get engaged?”, making the whole class giggle. Or in my mom’s IT class, when I told the women that we’d be using Microsoft Word to make cards for the supporters of our love-raiser, one of them tutted and said it was haram – which was enough to make me question the wisdom of grafting a Western holiday onto a Palestinian context.
The joking of my students aside, I have begun to see the manifestations of love in all its forms in my classrooms. Though girls and boys might still make faces when we devise ways to get them to sit together, the kids are well on their way towards feeling comfortable with each other. Batoul, for instance, barely cracked a smile her first week here and is now always laughing and gallivanting about with the other girls. I see love in that sense of safety and comfort – a place for kids to be kids – that we are creating here. And just as the kids are bonding with each other, it is truly heart-warming to see the affection developing between my kids and my volunteers, whose native Arabic skills and ability to work in small, focused groups with the kids, I have to admit, I am a bit jealous of.
Child psychologist Dr. Ross Campbell (as quoted by Gary Chapman in The Five Love Languages, the sort of relationship-help book I’m embarrassed to admit any familiarity with) said that “Inside every child is an ‘emotional tank’ waiting to be filled with love. When a child really feels loved, he will develop normally, but when the love tank is empty, the child will misbehave. Much of the misbehavior of children is motivated by the cravings of an empty ‘love tank.’”
I’m no Suhad, TYO's Psychosocial Program Manager, so I don’t have the academic or clinical chops to verify it, but on a gut level this idea makes sense to me. So in every child who jumps up and down in their seat, begging to be noticed, I’ve been trying to see not a trouble-maker who needs correction but a child who desperately needs to feel heard and acknowledged. That’s difficult, and I don’t always succeed 100%. It is always easier to treat the symptom on the spot – to remind the class about our rule about hand-raising – than to do the longer-term work of carving out the extra time and consideration for that child over the course of the session.
But already I’m seeing the benefits that just a bit of extra attention – of some teacherly love – can produce. Raghad, one of the more melodramatic girls in my class, was refusing to participate today, and when I went over to see what the matter was, she said that I never call on her even though she raises her hand. All it took was a few extra minutes of my time, a promise that I would look out for her in the future, and a compliment on the owl she drew last week for her face to light up as she trotted off to rejoin the group. I can’t say that she will be angelic from now on, but bit by bit, translated conversation by translated conversation, I hope to give these kids the sense of being seen, heard, and loved that they so desire. And that’s the best way to celebrate Valentine’s Day that I can imagine.
Last week TYO observed Valentine’s Day and I must admit I was not very thrilled with the idea. Of all holidays, Valentine’s has been the most corrupted by consumerism and kitsch expressions of love and affection, at least in my opinion; I hated the idea of promoting commercialism. I was also a bit concerned with cultural barriers and worried our students would misunderstand our intentions. In order to not be a vinegar valentine, I placed all of my skepticism and prejudice aside and I focused on making the best of occasion and ensuring our kids received some much needed personal attention, what really matters.
With the mood created by the holiday, I started thinking about the other types of love that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, friendship in particular. One of the amazing results that come out of the work done in TYO is the blossoming of new friendships. Encouraging new friendships is not an easy feat, since children want to use the time they spend at the center with friends they already have and in general stay within the complacency of their comfort zones. Breaking that mold and creating an environment were children feel safe and secure to express their own individualities is fundamental to all the work we do here. There is no better testament to this achievement than when our kids show signs of making new friendships.
In one of my activities this week, we played “Poison Ivy” in which a student is blindfold and has to navigate a field of children posing as the malicious itchy plant led by the instructions of one of their peers. As tends to be the case, kids want to be paired with their friends, but despite all of the rambunctious whining, I would not cave to their demands. In the last round of the game I had one of my more reserved students, who tends to seclude herself with her relatives, pair up with another girl from a different neighborhood. My shy student was blindfolded and I notice that she had a great amount of difficulty moving and following the directions given to her, but instead of giving up, her partner Walaa’ was very patient and dedicated to having her complete the task. I think had she been paired with anyone else, the game would not have been as successful. What I saw in Walaa’ was more than the drive to win the game but the willingness to help a friend. Although I cannot say that all of my students have made such great strides in the friendship department, seeing Walaa’s kindness and patience makes me hopeful.
The wonderful thing about this experience is that not only do the kids have the opportunities to make new friendships, but so do we. Instead of focusing on the superficiality of Valentine’s, I contemplated on the three great, budding friendships cultivating in the past four weeks - the ones with my fellow interns. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about their experiences, passions and interests. They’ve become a great support and I’m glad they are around.
Back in the United States, it would be difficult to overlook a holiday like Valentine’s Day. In the days leading up to February 14th, the stores and streets are filled with flowers, candy, and other trinkets to remind us to think of our loved ones. Here in Nablus, the holiday is not celebrated with the same kind of gusto, but you can still see love all around. The Palestinian culture is one known for its openness and hospitality, and I have been lucky enough to witness it firsthand.
This week, I saw this spirit of friendliness and love expressed by the children in my classes. We had been doing a relay race which involved jumping rope, and some children did not know how to do so. In order to encourage teamwork and bonding, I asked the students who already knew how to jump rope to instruct their fellow classmates. It was rewarding to see the children working together, and exhibiting patience and understanding towards the students who were slower to pick up the skill.
Perhaps most rewarding, however, was the reaction towards one student in particular. When I looked over towards Mojahed, I saw that he was not practicing jump rope, even though there were students willing to teach him. I asked why he was not joining the others, and it was clear that he was too embarrassed of failure to even attempt learning. At this point, some students took it upon themselves to not only instruct Mojahed, but to give him the encouragement and support that he needed. With some kind words and time, he was soon ready to join the others.
At this point, the relay race had already been concluded, but the students were still cheering Mojahed on and telling him to have a go at it. By himself, he jumped rope out to the designated marker and back, completing his would-be relay leg. It wasn’t a perfect run, and he tripped up here and there, but the class urged him to keep trying. When he finally finished, he was welcomed back to the starting line with a round of applause from the whole class.
Even though they may not have realized it, the students were demonstrating the true spirit of Valentine’s Day. While it would have been easier to just write Mojahed off, and use their time to play more on their own, the students chose to help their fellow classmate. It is these moments of affection and kindness that make my work here so rewarding. Love is all around, and it’s wonderful to see it celebrated every day at TYO.