A Community is Like an Onion – It has Layers

The word 'community' has many different connotations and can take on a variety of meanings depending on context. To some, a community consists of the people closest to them, while for others a community can comprise the larger village, city or nation. Nevertheless, regardless of personal definition, it is clear that no matter how you define a community, they are unequivocally part of a larger framework on which all societal relations are based. Thus, though often overlooked, addressing issues regarding community interaction may be one of the most important lessons a child can learn. Addressing the differences and similarities between communities, as well as why having respect for ones personal community is important is a key component in the healthy development of  children and youth. Due to the current political situation and lack of autonomy, Palestinian children grow up in an environment defined by insecurity and instability. When a society functions with uncertainty at its core, a child’s daily life contours to the limitations of his or her social environment, leaving little room for imagination or participation. A child’s role in his or her community depends on the encouragement and support they receive. If they believe they can make a difference, then they are more likely to try. While many of our students have pride in their home, many do not realize the potential they have as part of their community. Because of the lack of security and restriction in Palestine, it is rare that a child will appreciate their community let alone participate in it. At TYO, the mission of creating a sense of community that is supportive means encouraging respect, self-worth, and appreciation for one’s home. Instilling these values has potential to end the voiceless condition of a Palestinian childhood, so that the children of Palestine can bring their stories to the forefront.

While just a little over a month into the intern experience, we all have stories where a student’s lack of self-worth has been heartbreaking. With an emphasis on community, this week has offered moments where this problem finds resolve through recognition of an inclusive Palestinian identity. Encouraging children to see the similarities between their homes in Nablus allows them to share a sense of community that destabilizes home and gender discrimination between students. Freedom from discrimination is the essence of a healthy childhood and community, and at TYO we hope to foster community by continuing to question discrimination of any form. Developing respect and appreciation for the community is not just about respecting the home or neighbourhood, but about pride in being a part of something greater than oneself.

TYO Volunteer Jafar explains an activity to children on the backdrop of the stunning Nablus skyline

Discrimination is a word so commonly used in relation to Palestine, and Palestinian refugees in particular, that it seems to have become almost cliché. And yet, discrimination appears to be one of the only words that can do the situation justice. It is something that enfolds almost every aspect of a Palestinian refugee’s life, from their initial displacement to their present state of being. A state of being that Mahmoud Subuh, from the Yafa Center at Balata refugee camp, described as an acute “nothingness." A state of having nothing and feeling that there is no future for you, or your family, in this community that you exist in.

The state of many Palestinian refugees is made worse by the exclusion they face within their wider communities. For instance, within Nablus, which is home to four refugee camps, discrimination and exclusion is rife between the city and the camps, as well as amongst the camps themselves. For many children, growing up in a refugee camp brings with it many extra strands of prejudice. And yet, at TYO it is understood that it is children who are most likely to have the ability to transcend this local intolerance. Thus, it is one of the main aims here at TYO to address these issues from an early age. This intervention begins in the early childhood programs that bring children from all over Nablus together, making interaction between them normal and allowing long lasting friendships to form. These interventions are continued into the afternoon Intern classes, where children are encouraged to perform activities with others from varying backgrounds. Through these sustainable efforts it is hoped that real change can be fostered throughout the Nabulsi community as a whole.

Our work with fostering tolerance and communication within the community doesn’t end with our kids, however. A crucial component of our programs is our work with volunteers, who mainly come from the local university and represent another aspect important aspect of our community-building work. When we, as international interns, were told that we would be leading our after school classes with a team of volunteers and a translator, none of us knew exactly what we were getting into. We all faced challenges leading these groups in our first few classes, including communication barriers and cultural gaps that we didn’t know existed. Now, so many weeks in, we’ve become more comfortable teaching as a team and sharing our plans with each other, and we are so grateful to have all of them contributing to our classroom environment. While the interns are learning about communication and the skills it takes to lead a team, however, our volunteers are part of something even bigger. They are practicing their English and learning important skills that will help them when they graduate, but more importantly, they are investing themselves in their country’s future and shaping the culture of volunteerism in Nablus.

TYO volunteer Dia’ encourages kids during a trash clean up as part of Community Week

Volunteering within one's community is not a part of the Palestinian upbringing as it is ours, and working at TYO can seem demanding for a volunteer position. Nevertheless, our volunteers come twice a week, often more, and bring unbelievable enthusiasm and unique ideas that make a huge difference for our kids. They lead discussions, discipline kids, and are often forced to take concepts or games that were foreign to them days ago and turn them into a fun and engaging experience in the classroom, usually while working with people from different areas and confronting their own prejudices. While it might seem intuitive, such local components are often missing from modern development practice, which is what makes TYO’s approach so refreshing. We’re pushing the idea that taking care of a community is primarily the responsibility of the people that live there, and we’re giving our volunteers the tools to do just that. While their time and energy have been invaluable to our classes, we like to think that what they are giving back to Palestine is something even more special.

- Rachel, Rosie, Noah and Cynthia

Rachel, Rosie, Noah and Cynthia are Fall 2013 interns in Nablus.