Fostering Friendships in Palestine
Over the past seven weeks in Nablus, we have formed relationships not only with our students, but also with our translators, our volunteers, TYO staff members, and people in the greater Nabulsi community. As we wrap up our last days in Nablus and say our final goodbyes, we realize that these relationships have made a significant impact on our experience here in Palestine and our dedication to service work.
From the very beginning of my Art & Critical Thinking class this session, I had one student whose behavior constantly puzzled me. When addressing him directly, Islam would avoid eye contact and often ignore me. When instructed to work with his small group, Islam would immediately try to start the project by himself. At times, he would act very aggressively towards the other children, yet at other times, he would completely detach himself from the class. As I explained to one of my fellow interns, at only age nine, Islam already acts like a fully-grown man with a chip on his shoulder; he puts up a front to protect himself from the world around him.
Despite those occasional behavioral problems, which were especially prevalent in the beginning of the session, over the weeks I worked with him, there were moments in class when I saw Islam acting like a happy nine-year-old boy, instead of a man acting out in anger against the world. When we made egg carton gardens in class for our "public spaces" unit, he was completely engrossed in making beautiful palm trees and colorful flowers, eagerly pointing out each thing he made to me.
Around this time, one of my fellow interns, Jay, who also taught Islam in his Drama class, showed me a video from last fall featuring Islam. Watching the powerful video, I came to understand Islam and his situation much better. Not only did his father discipline him harshly in his early childhood, but he’s also a kid who has threatened to kill himself at times and has a reputation for being a troublemaker. The video made me that much more aware of where exactly he is from, as well as the circumstances many of my students grew up in. This knowledge greatly impacted my approach with children who are often viewed by the outside world as so-called “problem children.” In my opinion, there are no problem children, simply children that are shaped by their circumstances.
On our last day of classes right before he left, I asked Islam to take a picture with me and one of my other students, Anas. As he was walking away, Islam turned back, smiled and said, “Shukran kteer, Kahltu Hannah.” “Thank you a lot, Miss Hannah.” With only those four words and that smile, Islam made each moment of hard work this past session completely and utterly worth it.
As the knot of students pulsed with nervous energy, I raced back and forth frantically trying to encourage them to participate in a mixed-gender activity involving physical contact. It was the first week of class and I was assessing my students' ability to cooperate with an activity called 'the human knot'. When the knot unraveled, the students erupted into a chorus of “Mish helow! Mish helow!” (Not good! Not good!). This was their way of signifying dissatisfaction with the activity and, by extension, the prospect of holding hands with students of a different gender.
Mohammad, one student, was particularly firm in his opposition to the activity. Rather than hold the hands of a female classmate, he planted himself under a carob tree and answered my appeals to participate by raising his eyebrows and clicking his tongue - a gesture that means 'no' in the Levant. However, despite his initial recalcitrance, Mohammad became one of my most joyful, enthusiastic, and helpful students by the end of the session.
Upon meeting with Suhad, the Psychosocial Program Manager at TYO, I learned more about Mohammad's circumstances including the domestic and educational challenges that he faces. According to Suhad, Mohammad's trying situation at home and in school has severely restricted his space and ability to be a child. Therefore, Mohammad had trouble participating in class and engaging with his peers in the beginning of the session. As during the human knot activity, he preferred to sneak away and observe events from afar rather than play with his classmates. On Suhad's advice, I actively encouraged and paid attention to Mohammad in order to boost his confidence and make him feel comfortable at TYO. Although this strategy did not yield immediate results, Mohammad began to show signs of improvement after over a month. He became increasingly receptive to my appeals to participate, and then he began to participate eagerly without coercion or cajoling.
In the last two weeks of class, I noticed a significant change in Mohammad's behavior. He beamed with joy, became very helpful and enthusiastic, and began to assist his fellow students and I regardless of gender. On one occasion, he discovered that a girl in the class had misplaced her backpack in the first floor atrium as we went upstairs for lunch. Sincerely concerned about the matter, Mohammad not only informed my of what happened, but also offered to return the bag.
This story, and that of Mohammad in general, reiterates the importance of TYO's work in Nablus and serves as a powerful example of the impact that this organization has on the community. In six weeks TYO helped transform Mohammad from a child burdened by the endemic stress of his environment into a student overflowing with happiness. With his warm smile and his cute little danbe min wara' (rat-tail), Mohammad has and continues to be an inspiration to his fellow classmates and I.
In reflecting on the relationships that I have built during my time here at TYO, it isn’t one specific connection that stands out, more so it is the act of making and sustaining relationships that is the most poignant lesson of all. I would argue that all service work - ranging from activism to education - is rooted in creating strong connections and building trust. Without a rapport with the community there is no way to move forward with the work. Tomorrow’s Youth Organization goes through great lengths to prepare international interns to integrate themselves into the conservative Nabulsi community. Above all, we focus on respecting the local staff and the people who live in the neighborhood around us. TYO’s mission of sustainability is rooted in the idea that one day the organization, if need be, will be run without the presence of international staff.
Therefore, the relationships that we have all built while here are more important than memorable experiences. Each volunteer or translator that we interact with is a potential future teacher or staff member. Each student is a future volunteer. Each community member is a potential advocate for education reform in Palestine. Slowly, slowly, we are transforming the community - one relationship at a time. And while this type of transformation takes time, effort and friendship - it is the most sustainable and rewarding mode of change. Undoubtedly, my time at TYO has taught me to trust and love people more readily- in the interest of developing those transformative relationships. While sharing a song on the bus ride, or a plate of kanafa, or simply a smile, these connections that I have made in Palestine are unforgettable.
As we leave Nablus, we will carry these memories with us, grateful for the relationships we have formed and incredibly thankful for our time at TYO.