COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children

by Tomorrow's Youth Organization
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children
COVID19: Education & Food for Palestinian Children

Walking through the streets of Nablus, it is difficult not to notice all the children. There are children playing soccer and cycling in the streets, children selling watermelon and cucumbers in the Old City, and children laughing with friends on steps to pass the time.

As I look at them, most of the children look back at me with big, curious eyes. Most walk by me cautiously, but some are confident and approach me to ask me where I am from. Few smile at me, but if I smile first, all of them flash huge, goofy smiles back. 

When I found out I had been accepted to an internship program in Palestine, I was a little hesitant. Since graduating from university, I had spent most of my time in corporate roles that were neither fulfilling nor making a difference in the world. I knew a summer in Palestine would be significantly different from my past experiences and I was not entirely sure what I could actually offer the youth of Palestine.

As an intern, I was responsible for creating and implementing the day-to-day programming for kids who just finished third grade. My program focused on building self-confidence, developing self-expression, team building, and helping youth become agents of change in their communities.

On a daily basis, I was shocked at the eagerness, curiosity, friendliness, and resilience of the kids despite their circumstances. The majority of them have had their worlds limited to the walls of a refugee camp and their entire childhoods ripped away from them. And yet, they walk into the center each morning with smiles on their faces, passion to engage with the wider world around them, and hearts bigger than you can even imagine. 

My doubts about what I could offer or teach the kids at the center quickly subsided. I realized early on that the children of Palestine would teach me far more than I could ever teach them. The most that I could do was be fully present for each of them. 

The kids taught me that you can see the world in a child’s eyes. You can see innocence, but also anxiety, struggle, and pain in the same pair of eyes. You can see the generosity and compassion of kids who have nothing, but also the strains of selfishness that have developed after years of feeling they cannot depend on anyone or anything. You can feel the excitement that radiates from them when I tell them that I am half-Palestinian, and the subsequent confusion when they ask me what Palestinian refugee camp I am from in the United States. You can see how eager they are to engage with the world as they try to guess how long the bus ride from Palestine to America is, but you can also see the hopelessness stir when it hits them that they may never fly on a plane and see the rest of the world. 

Most of all, the children of Palestine will teach you how to love. Whether you are playing soccer with kids at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization or walking by kids on the street you may never see again, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. All of them. 

The girl who squeezes my hand every five minutes in class so that she can show me her drawing. The boy who beams with pride as he shows us his grandfather’s soap factory and tells us how his family makes the traditional Nabulsi soap. The boy in East Jerusalem who trips while pushing a tray full of kayak, wipes the sweat off his face as he picks up the kayak from the ground piece by piece, and gets back up again. And the boy standing on the steps in the Old City of Nablus with a t-shirt that reads, “The night has a thousand eyes.” 

To the youth of Palestine, I see you. 

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Grade 3 English class before COVID-19.
Grade 3 English class before COVID-19.

It was the Tuesday of my second week into teaching, and I was finally beginning to get the hang of it all… or so I thought. For today’s exercise, we were tackling a semester-long project I had invented and coined as the “Verb Monster” activity. Thinking myself quite clever, I’d designed the activity to teach my students simple sentence structure, which included three characters: the Verb Monster, Subject Snowman, and Object Caterpillar, all characters of whom had personality traits that aligned with the rules of their sentence placement. For example, the Verb Monster was shy and always needed the Subject Snowman to go before him in sentences. This way, I hoped, students would get into the habit of putting verbs after the subject as opposed to before when writing out their basic sentences.

Having learned at least half of my students’ names, I noticed mid-way through the Verb Monster activity that Muhamad, a boy usually the first to volunteer himself for an activity or to lead a warm-up exercise, seemed withdrawn, to say the least. As the class continued, Muhamad became entirely despondent, try as the classroom volunteers might to engage him in the activity, he pushed the pencils away, only to slump deeper into his chair.

Within my first weeks at Tomorrow’s Youth I came to see that many of the children I worked with had dealt with more trauma in their first 6 years of life than I ever would in the entirety of mine. Having heard multiple mothers says that TYO was the most exciting part of their children’s week and their own, I learned the depth and sincerity of TYO’s reach in the Nablus community, and the need it filled in children’s lives like Muhamad’s.

Muhamad’s face fell into a furrowed look of frustration, before going slack and staring off into the distance, as if leaving the classroom and his peers behind entirely, lost in a world I only wished I could somehow wedge myself into and better understand. I felt helpless, as a teacher whose only experience with intervention was during aggressive outbursts, Muhamad’s dispirited behavior was foreign to me, and posed an intimidating challenge of teacher-student confrontation. Beyond my role as a teacher, this was a disheartening moment to witness personally, and my first introduction to the withdrawn behavior I had been prepped to handle during orientation week.

As opposed to trying to contain the explosive bonfire of a child’s emotions and physical eruption, I would have to draw out the spark and start a fire of interest, however small. I went over past strategies I had learned about helping children better understand and manage their behavior, which included finding the root of the child’s behavior. Yet, in this moment of Muhamad’s despair, while he was consumed by unknowable internal struggles, the script I rehearsed in my head seemed overly practiced and forced, robotic even. I balked, choosing a much more simplistic yet instinctual goal: connect. In these first moments of interaction, I didn’t need to mine for the innermost personal struggles of this child, so much as foster a moment of engaged distraction, before moving on from there. Baby steps, I whispered to myself.

Taking a deep breath for self-confidence’s sake, I approached Muhamad at his table, and asked myself: What would make 9-year-old me smile? Without knowing whether this seemingly pointless effort would flop or succeed, I crouched down next to Muhamad and picked up his pencil and a scratch piece of paper, before drawing a stick figure that waved to him from the one-dimensional page, accompanied by a “Hi!” speech bubble. I started writing his name in decorative bubble letters at the top of the scrap paper, hoping that maybe this time I would pique his curiosity. I watched Muhamad’s face intently for any telltale signs of interest, immediately beginning to doubt my childish attempt. But then, lo-and-behold, I saw the tiniest of smiles begin to curl at the edges of Muhamad’s mouth. I drew another stick figure, this time with its tongue stuck out in a silly face. The role of teacher seemed to dissolve, and I felt myself becoming a 3rd grade student again, trying to make a fellow classmate giggle with doodles. Neither of us had spoken yet, proving that I should never underestimate the power of unspoken interaction-- play-- in the face of a language barrier.

I nudged one of the discarded crayons in his direction, hoping it wasn’t too soon. Stepping up to the challenge, Muhamad started to draw his own stick figures, far more elaborate and proportional than mine. I laughed and told him that he should be the one teaching me. With this, Muhamad got excited and started to show me the different designs he could draw, like a 3 dimensional box and infinity sign. A few minutes and plenty of geometric designs later, I began outlining the verb words we had learned earlier that day, “eat”, “run”, and “walk”, to see if I could re-direct our efforts. It seemed like we were working as a team by now, and completing the list of verb words became our shared goal. I traded in the crayon for a pencil, handing it to Muhamad expectantly. Am I rushing him? I immediately began to wonder, thinking I should go back to doodling. But just as I thought the surprises of that morning had run out, Muhamad took the pencil firmly, poised it just-so over the outlined letter “E”, scooched his chair closer to the desk, and began writing his way through the word “Eat”. I smiled watching his brow furrow once again, this time out of determined focus rather than frustrated disengagement.

It was, and still is quite shocking and disheartening to see such young lives already so affected and shaped by uncontrollable external factors. But, for this same reason I am all the more impressed when I see children like Muhamad put in genuine effort and engage in class, despite facing obvious internal stress that would make most of the grown adults I know back home throw in the towel and quit. If there is one thing that has most certainly been confirmed during my internship so far, it’s the inspiring resilience of children. Since doodles with Muhamad, I have dealt with many an instance of despondent students, all of whom have unknowingly helped put my own difficulties into perspective. After each of these encounters, my students still find reasons to smile and play with one another, taking one day at a time, one friend at a time, and one class at a time.

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"I miss seeing my friends and studying with them in the same class," Ghazal said when asked about what she missed most about TYO during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Ghazal is a 9 years old student in the Academic Program who lives in Balata Refugee Camp. Her mother attends the Women's Empowerment Program at TYO. Although Ghazal is naturally quiet, she is able to express herself at TYO and make many friends.

"Ghazal started becoming more confident when she joined the organization," said her mother. Her teacher Shireen also noticed how much her personality developed from shy to confident after three weeks in the program.

"I love math, and I love to learn English from international interns. They are so kind and I feel special when they teach me," Ghazal said. The program offers basic academic subjects for students aged 9-14. When all the programs stopped running in accordance with the COVID-19 lockdown, Ghazal kept asking, "Will we return soon?"

Our education classes are gradually returning with a strictly limited number of children and following World Health Organization's COVID-19 safety precautions, we're happy to see even a few of our amazing kids again. There’s still a long way to go, but together we can overcome this global crisis!

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Entrance to Balata Refugee camp.
Entrance to Balata Refugee camp.

“I've been married for 6 years. I have 3 girls and I’m currently 9 months pregnant. My daughters are 5, 4 and 2 years old. Since the beginning of my marriage I lived with my in-laws in the same house in Balata Refugee camp, where we experienced many hardships from being poor, not enough food, and too many people living under the same roof. It was very challenging and my father-in-law gave me a very hard time. Five months ago we moved to a room on the rooftop of my in-laws house. It has a bedroom, bathroom and small kitchen. The bathroom and kitchen are still not ready to be used so whenever we need to use the bathroom we have to go to my sister-in-laws room.”

TYO social workers have been in touch with Sara* and her family during the COVID-19 crisis. When asked about their current situation, she explained:

"Our situation is very difficult right now, it's the hardest time I’ve ever been through in my life.

My husband worked in the vegetable market at night where he would transfer vegetables. But ever since the Coronavirus crisis he hasn't been able to work in anything at all. It's been a whole month since he lost his job. This Coronavirus is ruining everything. Even before this situation we used to only eat once a day when my in-laws would bring something at night, but now there is absolutely nothing. For the past 2 weeks, there hasn't been any money or food in the house. My mother-in-law and brother-in-law also used to work but with the current situation they also lost their employment. So right now we have no source of income.

There’s an organization that gives us 3 kilos of bread every other day for the whole family, but we're 9 adults and 6 children in the house. We feed the children bread with vegetable oil, some days we add a little bit of thyme. The children cry a lot because they’re hungry, but I swear there isn't any food. Because they cry so much, my sister-in-law and I give them plenty of water to drink so they feel full and can go to sleep. Two days ago the children cried so much that we went to ask for food from other relatives. We came back with a little bit of rice and made them a plate. They all sat around it and ate together, every last bit. They were so happy, as if they were having a feast.

To tell you the truth, I’m exhausted. I haven't been able to rest or sleep properly as I’m always thinking of our situation, throughout the entire pregnancy I barely ate anything. I’m so worried that this lockdown might be extended longer. I’m scared of my upcoming due date in the middle of this month (April), especially since I can't afford the fees for giving birth; the clinic in the camp gave me a referral to a hospital but it would cost 130 NIS which I don't have. I also haven’t prepared for me or the baby and this is making me very anxious. We don't have cleaning supplies at home so I won't be able to clean and sanitize the house. I’m afraid my girls might catch something from me after I come back from the hospital.”

Thanks to your donations and support, Tomorrow’s Youth Organization staff are on the ground in Balata Refugee Camp, Nablus’s other refugee camps and it’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, providing healthy food, medicine and basic supplies like baby formula and diapers to Sara’s* family and as many others as possible.

Sara delivered a healthy baby girl in the hospital in April via C-section. Our social workers were able to advocate for Sara and her situation to the hospital management, resulting in the hospital treating Sara and delivering her baby for free, without any fees. We were also able to provide Sara with a care-package of newborn baby supplies, to ensure her and her new daughter had everything they needed at home.

TYO staff delivering food to families in need.
TYO staff delivering food to families in need.
TYO's food deliveries to families in need.
TYO's food deliveries to families in need.
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Dana and her mom are loving Lego time!
Dana and her mom are loving Lego time!

Hello, my name is Dana. I am 4 years old. My mom is from Russia and my dad is from Palestine. I live in Askar, a small village in Nablus. I started coming to TYO three months ago, and I come to class every Monday and Wednesday. My mom comes with me on the bus and she is supposed to leave me in class until I finish at 11:30. Then she picks me up and we go home by bus again.   

When I first started, I cried hard when it was time to leave my mother. I did not like when she left the classroom and left me alone with other children and the new teacher and four volunteers. They were kind to me and tried to make me smile and play with other children and engage in the different activities, but I struggled. I couldn’t imagine being there alone away from my mama. We never leave each other. We are always together and we spend our time together at home - she cooks and I’m beside her, she visits her friends and I’m with her, she teaches sports in the gym and I also go with her. She never leaves me alone or with someone new. I am the one who never leaves her. Yes, I can’t leave her, you know why? Because I love my mom and can’t stay away from her.  

My mom is an amazing woman. She has been through some challenges since she moved from Russia to Palestine, when she married my father. Her life has changed. She lives far away from her family. We still visit them, but Russia is not close to Palestine, so we have to wait a long time to go there. She is from a different culture. She also looks different than most people who live in Palestine because she is blond with blue eyes. I look like her, too

My mom didn’t have a lot of friends when she came to Palestine. She also didn’t speak Arabic well. She speaks Russian and she had to learn Arabic in order to communicate with people, especially when my dad leaves for work and she stays alone at home.

My mom loves me and my sister Sabrina so much. She gives us everything we want and tries to make us feel happy and comfortable. She also spends most of her time at home with us. She used to work as a sports instructor at one of Nablus’ gyms, but not anymore. My mom said it was hard for her to take me with her all the time to the gym whenever she had a class to teach. I understand why. I’ve been there and I have seen how huge those machines are. I was scared to get close to them. But what can I do? I can’t leave her there alone; I miss her if she stays away from me for a short time, how about an hour?

At TYO, I have fun - great fun. The teacher is nice and understanding and the classes are full of toys and great materials. There is even an imagination room! It’s full of beautiful costumes I can try out and pretend to be someone! There is also a sensory room where we can try different sounds and lights of different colors. I enjoy my time there, but I cry when my mom is not around. My mom stayed with me in class for 1 month. She volunteered in class like the other volunteers. I wouldn’t leave my mother even if she stayed in the same room and left her chair or grabbed something over the shelf. I would follow her and cry her name out loud and cry, “don’t leave me!” My mother was so stressed when she noticed how stressed I was, and how I would spend the whole day nervous thinking about her leaving me anytime during the day. My mom approached my teacher, Marah, and talked to her about my situation. She said I’m not used to being left alone with so many strangers and that I’m so attached to her. I need a longer time to adapt to the new situation and to the staff. My teacher and my mom agreed on letting my mother stay in class for longer periods. She volunteered to stay in class as a volunteer, not as a mother, in order to make the classroom environment smoother.

My teacher and mother also helped me by giving me a special volunteer all to myself. She always said hello to me at the door and played with me during class. I became so calm and active at the same time. I also became more engaged in activities and even more social. I made friends through the session and showed empathy towards them in many situations. After a few weeks, I could stay in class all by myself without my mom! My parents at home and my sister Sabrina are so happy and grateful to finally be able to leave me in a good mood and not have to worry about me while my mom is not available. We can’t wait to be back next session. We miss everyone already! 

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Organization Information

Tomorrow's Youth Organization

Location: McLean, VA - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @tomorrowsyouth
Project Leader:
Suhad Jabi
Director, Tomorrow's Youth Organization
McLean, VA United States
$63,938 raised of $75,000 goal
 
843 donations
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