Meet Our Boys
When we stop to reflect on the improvements made by our kids, it would be impossible to say that any single one of them have not gained something from being part of TYO. Still, it would also not be a fair conclusion to insinuate that all of our students have had complete 180° transformations. Many of our kids are in dire need of an outlet for self-expression and exhibit behavioral issues due to their inability to disclose their true persona. Yet, there are kids that come to our center not because they need help when it comes to self-expression, but mostly because they need a channel for a healthy childhood. Khaled fits the latter scenario. Although he is a veteran at TYO, Khaled has never shied away from participating in class, often taking the lead in the more embarrassing (and therefore most abhorred) drama activities such as animal charades.
Khaled comes from Old Askar, a refugee camp so over populated that many of its 15,000 inhabitants have left the original constraints of the camp and expanded its territory at the expense of their refugee status. His family is reasonably modest in size, composed of six members with him being the youngest of four siblings. Before coming to TYO, Khaled went about his ordinary life with no obvious altercations. He’d return home from school to do his homework, eat and pray. When I asked him what he enjoyed the most about being at TYO, he said it was the ability to play games and make new friends. This was something I had already noticed, Khaled has made many friendships with the other students from his class who are not from the same neighborhood as him. He even talks to the girls, a noteworthy difference from his male counterparts who still sit three seats away from the binat during lunchtime.
Unlike many of his classmates who constantly jump out of their seats begging to be noticed, Khaled stands out for the opposite reason. While he never shuns from participation, he still conserves his reserved demeanor, only occasionally hinting to the effects of the occupation in his life through improv games and storytelling. An undertone of the consequences of violence and life under occupation are still present, even if only small glimpses can occasionally be captured.
TYO has provided Khaled with a positive atmosphere and room to lead a normal childhood. In our last activity, I had students make puppets of people they admire, Khaled made a puppet of our translator Ahmad, a positive influence he would not have it if weren’t for the center.
One of my favorite memories of my after-school class is playing charades with the kids. I had been warned that creative thinking is a rare skill among our students, their schools choosing to focus instead on hard skills such as math, science, and reading. I was pleasantly surprised then, when child after child took the floor and acted out simple charades with ease and imagination. One of the best, by far, was Ishaq's impression of a lion.
Ishaq comes to my Sports and Games class every Tuesday and Thursday. He's been lovingly dubbed “Grandpa” by the interns for his glasses and mature looks; however Ishaq is unequivocally young at heart. Other kids may see him as a class clown, and he is certainly full of energy, but his silliness comes from a place of pure joy. He loves to throw himself to the ground, slide across the floor, and dance. It's refreshing to see such healthy forms of self expression in a child growing up in this environment.
Ishaq lives in Balata, a refugee camp located here in Nablus since 1950. In the early years, these former residents from Jaffa, a city adjacent to Tel Aviv, lived in tents. Over time, as the possibility of returning to their homes dimmed, permanent structures were built in Balata. Today, over 25,000 residents live in an area of just 0.25 square kilometers. In the United States, an average of less than 10 people live on this same amount of land. There are no playgrounds in Balata Camp and “streets” are sometimes no more than one meter wide. When I asked Ishaq what was his favorite part of coming to TYO, he said he liked it because, “it's big and there's lots of space."
What I love about Ishaq is that he is able to find enjoyment in such a difficult situation. He told me he loves going to school and doing science experiments, using the internet at home, and one day hopes to become a dentist. I asked him what his favorite part of being Palestinian is, and he responded, “it's the land of my grandparents." Now his family is scattered, some in Balata Camp, some in Jordan, and some elsewhere.
It's a pleasure having Ishaq in my classroom. His spirit is very much appreciated by students and volunteers alike. He's an excellent example of thriving despite difficult conditions. However, I can't help but wonder how many more years it will take for him too to become frustrated, to run out of opportunities for growth, to become stagnant in the reality of his circumstances. I hope for him, and for all our students, that they can hold on to their spirit of optimism.
Though I hate gender-stereotyping, I can’t deny that the boys in my classes are sometimes less enraptured with the artistic process than the girls are, despite my efforts to make the classes engaging for everyone. Not so with Muhammad, who is always eager for each new artistic endeavor. I’m always happy to see him come in the door with his pink Reeboks and his eagerness to participate in whatever activity I have planned for the day.
Muhammad has seen his share of challenges in my class. He is an occasional participant in the back-and-forth I have unfortunately become familiar with: “he hit me!”; “he started it, he insulted me!”; “I was just joking and he didn’t understand it!” As is often the case because of the language barrier and because I can’t be everywhere at once, it is hard to tell whether Muhammad is the victim or the aggressor in the occasional spats that break out amongst the boys in that class. I once interrupted him with his fist pulled back, ready to strike, but he is also prone to tears when he gets insulted by the other boys, when he gets frustrated, or when things don’t go his way.
But Muhammad is also a talented artist. He thinks so too - he confided in me one day that he thinks he’s one of the best artists in the class, and with no one else listening in, I couldn’t help but agree with him. And I can see his self-confidence growing as the class continues and he gets the opportunity to practice something he is skilled at. He is also less conflict-prone than he was at the start of class: after a conflict with Asmaa, one of the girls in the class, he came back from Suhad’s office (TYO's psychosocial manager) brimming with the confidence that comes with being really listened to.
I sat down to learn a bit more about Muhammad during one lunch period. He comes from a big family: he has three brothers and one sister, with another sister on the way, a development he says he’s happy about. He said his favorite foods were mujaddera, a Palestinian dish with lentils, rice, and sautéed onions; apples; and mulberries. When he grows up, he wants to be a lawyer and an engineer, because he loves building things.
He lives in the refugee camp al-Ein, where his favorite thing about his neighborhood is the UNRWA school he attends, because he gets to play soccer and volleyball there. He doesn’t like, however, that there are many boys there who insult and hit others. Hearing Muhammad say that reaffirmed my commitment to foster a different sort of environment in my own classroom, and to get to the bottom of the conflicts that do erupt, to keep the classroom a safe space for everyone.
Muhammad said that his favorite things about TYO are sports and art, especially drawing and print-making, so I was happy to hear that he’s equally happy in both Laura and my classes. I was also encouraged to hear that he wants to register for photography class next session, to continue making art in an exciting new medium. Even more so, I’m happy to know that he’s found in TYO a safe space, where he wants to keep coming back to further expand his horizons.
During my first few classes with Shaaker, I couldn’t help but think that this boy was going to be trouble. In addition to being loud and disruptive at times, he had a certain rapport with the other boys in the class, where he could have them follow his every move. If he decided that he did not like a game or activity and wanted to sit out, four or five others would follow suit. While at first this troubled me as a teacher, I could tell at heart that he really wanted to be here, and so I tried to find the source of his frustrations.
For Shaaker, his lack of participation had little to do with his level of interest, but rather with his fear of failure. He did not sit out of activities that he did not enjoy; rather, he sat out of activities which he felt he could not succeed in. Part of the reason for this anxiety, I believe, stems from his background. Being the oldest of five siblings and growing up in a one-room home in the Old City, Shaaker has been forced into a leadership position from a young age. Even though he is only 11 years old, before coming to TYO, he would support his family’s income by working at a butcher shop after school. Occasionally, Shaaker would have the opportunity to play football with friends, but for the most part, he hadn’t really had the opportunity to really experience true childhood here in Nablus.
When I asked him about his life before coming to TYO, Shaaker mentioned that he had problems running and with other movements. Since coming here, however, he has gotten better physically and says that his problems are gone. His life had kept him so constricted, that even just the two hours a week that he spends here playing sports has changed his body for the better. Before coming to TYO, he also said that he was alone all the time. Now, however, he has many friends and loves coming to the center to play with them. In his words, TYO has changed him for the better.
In addition to his new friends and sports skills, I’ve also noticed some changes in Shaaker’s behavior. He no longer interferes with the class, and in many ways he will use his charisma for the better. During sports and games, he is quick to take on the role of leader and is always encouraging and helpful to others. I cannot say that he doesn’t disrupt the class, but I can say that he always does so in a positive manner, playing the part of the class clown. While one tries not to pick favorites as a teacher, I’d be lying if I said he didn’t hold a special place in my heart. It saddens me to know that in a few weeks I’ll be leaving him, but I hope that together with TYO, Shaaker will continue to learn and grow.