Meet Our Girls
In every class, there are kids you can’t help but notice. Like Lana and Shahd, who live in our neighborhood, Khallet al-Amood, and always come to class half an hour early. Or Sara, with her giant dimples, who calls out in class with irrelevant but still adorable commentary and loudly announced that she wanted to be in my group for the last Library Day. Or the little girls who linked arms with me and told me they loved me after only one class. The outgoing, undeniably cute little girls are always easy to warm up to.
But I wasn’t like that as a kid, so as a former shy little girl, I have a soft spot for the quiet kids - the ones who shine just as brightly but maybe not as loudly. It would be easy to pay the most attention to the kids who ask for it, who are always jumping up to show me their art projects or to compliment my hair, but I make an effort to seek out the kids who are less outgoing. There are a few quieter girls I’ve tried to look out for throughout the session. One of them is Batoul.
When Batoul started coming to my class, she was very quiet, reluctantly offering up her name on the first day of classes for name games. One challenge of the class is that some of the kids come with built-in friend groups, with cousins and neighbors clustered together in tight little circles. Batoul entered the class as a free agent, without that kind of security blanket to make her more comfortable. As a result, it has been immensely satisfying to watch her develop friendships with girls from the other camps – with Najah from Old Askar and Nahd from New Askar; they all sit together and giggle and tease each other during lunch.
Batoul has an infectious smile and a giggle that always makes me want in on the joke. She’s got a wonderful creative streak, too. When the kids made monster finger puppets out of toilet paper rolls with crepe paper for hair, she was the only one in the class to figure out how to create a monster with two different hair colors.
Batoul hails from Balata, notorious as the most crowded refugee camp in the West Bank, where houses are separated only by narrow alleyways. We’ve also learned that the inter-family power dynamics there have produced some over-confident kids and some shy ones, accustomed to being picked on. If I had to pigeonhole her, I would imagine that Batoul falls into the latter category – but her weeks at TYO have clearly given her new confidence.
Contrary to the large family sizes common in many of the camps, Batoul has one brother and one sister. And despite all the negative stereotypes that exist about Balata, I asked her what she liked and didn’t like about where she’s from, and she said she liked everything. Her likes and interests would make her a good candidate for a friendship with any typical American kid: her favorite food is melon and her favorite hobby is drawing, she says. Her favorite part of coming to TYO is the opportunity to play. She hopes to become a doctor one day, and I’m confident that the boost she’s gotten at TYO will help her achieve her dreams.
When I first met Nawal, I couldn’t help but be reminded of myself. In addition to sharing a name, both her appearance and demeanor mirrored my own from my youth. During our first week of classes, she was shy and reserved, hardly speaking a word to anyone. While she demonstrated interest in the games and activities, there was reluctance on her part to fully participate. As a young girl, I acted very similarly, constantly clinging to my mother’s side, afraid to really come into my own. But at some point, during my early teen years, I came out of my shell, and started to become the woman that I am today. With my little Nawal, I feel like I am witnessing the same transformation right before my eyes.
In the last six weeks, Nawal has evolved from one of the most withdrawn members of the class to one of the most outgoing. She comes to class each day with a smile on her face and loves participating in sports, especially soccer. As this is her first session with TYO, I wanted to talk to her to see how she felt about our program here. Coming from New Askar refugee camp, Nawal told me that she shares a four-room house with her parents, two brothers, and three sisters. Before joining us here, she would sometimes attend a children’s center in her camp, but she said that it was not as good as TYO. Most of the time, she would just go home after school and watch TV and do her homework. But now, everything is different, she said.
When I asked how TYO has made things different, she smiled and told me some things I already had noticed. She said that before TYO, she was shy and scared, but now she has made new friends, has no fears and can play. “It’s a nice place and has taught me many things,” she said. When I asked what she has learned, she responded “how to play and respect others.” At this point, I could not help but smile myself. My mini-me has made me feel so proud and rewarded by the work that we are doing here. At the end of the interview, I asked if there was anything else that Nawal wanted to share about TYO. She smiled and said, “I love it here, and I want to say thank you.”
Of all my students, Raghad has demonstrated the most improvement in terms of self-expression. When the session started, Raghad had mistakenly been registered to attend the same class twice a week. We quickly tried to resolve the problem and were told that the double matriculation was caused in an effort to involve Raghad in as many classes as possible. Her case had been “high need” by a psychologist who had recommended her to our center. Raghad was so shy, she never stopped to complain or inquire as to why she was doing the same activities in both her classes.
At first, having Raghad contribute and participate in class games was like pulling teeth. She lacked the self-confidence to not question her actions and to express herself. In activities that required creativity and imagination, she would always resort to mimicking the examples I had provided. While this is true of many of the children, Raghad seemed particularly mortified at the idea of having to present in front of an audience - an incredibly vexing obstacle for a drama class. Encouraging reserved children to participate in class is a challenge, especially in the first weeks. You need to be cautious and aware that your actions don’t further alienate them and that your carefully planned lessons don’t backfire.
Raghad’s accelerated transformation came as a total surprise. While playing a game, Raghad actually volunteered to be the leader. This was actually her second time leading the game. I was in completer disbelief. The little girl who I could barely present her name, was begging me to let her take a lead in a game. I attributed her reaction to a successful game, but in the next class I had the same response - there was Raghad jumping up to be noticed and pleading to be first. I was so thrilled that she wanted to participate again that I disrupted the order of the game for her advantage and had to endure the repercussions from the rest of the class.
Raghad comes from a relatively small Palestinian family. She is the oldest of five and lives in the Balata Refugee Camp. It’s no surprise that Raghad has had problems with self-expression and there is definitely much more work to be done, but the fact that Raghad has a space to call her own in the center and a moment to shine, is a step in the right direction.
This week I've been reflecting on the fact that many students are struggling to find their voice in this community. In their homes and schools, attention is a limited resource. When they arrive at our center, they enter a classroom with a teacher, translator, and at least four volunteers for a group of 10 – 20 students. Yet, it isn't enough for some children. Some take the opportunity and act out in a variety of ways, from refusing to participate to physically fighting with the other kids - any kind of attention is good attention. It may seem like a student to teacher ratio of 3:1 should be more than enough to carry on a class, but there are often times I could use two or three more adults in the room. When the class becomes fragmented with problems, it's difficult to build a classroom dynamic of trust and respect. After six weeks with the students, I'm beginning to see changes in some of them. Participation in activities has stabilized, and most students have built a relationship of trust with the volunteers.
One girl who was new to TYO's intern classes is Haddeya. Last session, she came to TYO for Homework Help, and is now in my Sports and Games class for 9 and 10 year olds. From the beginning of the session, it was clear that she had a difficult time trusting those around her. She spent most of her time quietly observing the other students, sometimes using our snack break to stand on the balcony alone. The more I tried to get her to open up, the more she isolated herself. She first became comfortable speaking with one of the female volunteers, Wala'. Slowly she's been making friends in our class, but there are days when a simple comment can make her completely shut down. Students like Haddeya remind me that even if a child begins to trust me, trust can be destroyed in an instant.
Last week Haddeya had a particularly difficult day. I could tell from the moment she arrived at the center, she was unhappy. Since she lives in the same neighborhood as the center, she walks herself here after school and home after our class. I'm proud that although she was already having a bad day, she chose to come to our center anyway; however, it became clear that the day wasn't going to improve. Her closest friend from the neighborhood hadn't come to class, and as soon as two other girls refused to participate in a game, she quietly sat down against the wall. When I tried to talk to her, she ran away down a busy street, only stopping when she was sure that I wasn't stopping either. I told her then that I would be writing my blog about her this week, and she promised to return for the next class.
My interview with Haddeya didn't uncover a story more difficult than our other children. She lives with mother and father here in Nablus, she's the eldest child with three little brothers, and she loves Jerusalem. Her father is a tailor, and someday she hopes to own a spa. When I began asking questions about her ideas and feelings, I was amazed by her thoughtfulness. I asked her what she would like people around the world to know about Palestinians, and she replied, “I want them to know that we're a people of faith”. And, when I asked her what she thought Palestine would be like without the occupation she simply said, “Beautiful."