Learning under siege

In the middle of the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, dozens of boys age 11 to 16 spend their winter school break at the Bunat al Ghad Center, run by the Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA), an MCC partner. [CFTA also operates a winter camp for girls on alternate days.] Entering from the road through a small gate and turning the corner past colorful murals of animals and cityscapes, participants in the winter camp are welcomed by a large sign and smiling staff and then disperse to different rooms for a range of activities, including drawing, theater, creative writing, experimentation in a science lab and active games and sports. At CFTA’s winter camps and other activities, Palestinian children and youth take an active role in planning CFTA’s program.

Near the back of a room at Bunat al Ghad where one cohort is playing musical chairs, 17-year-old Mohammed Ramadan maneuvers around the energetic group, snapping pictures and filming the activity. He is one of CFTA’s youth leaders, a young participant in the center’s programs encouraged to develop his leadership skills.

The development of personal agency is immensely important in the context of Palestine, where 67 years of displacement and dispossession have left millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across Palestine and around the world, and where 48 years of occupation by Israel leaves millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip stateless, deprived of basic citizenship rights and subject to tight restrictions on movement, economic growth, religious activity and more.

In Gaza in particular, the Israeli closure regime initiated in 2007 that tightly restricts the movement of people and goods into and out of the Strip puts enormous strain on the entire society. Of a population of 1.8 million, more than two-thirds are refugees from 1948 and their descendants, while 60 percent are under the age of 18. This community is effectively locked in a piece of land only 25 miles long and three to seven miles wide. Due to the Israeli blockade and frequent military operations, Gaza, Harvard political economist Sara Roy explains, is one of the only places in the world considered to be undergoing a process of “de-development.”

This past summer, 50 days of Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military plunged Gaza into an even more desperate humanitarian situation, leaving entire neighborhoods decimated and thousands injured and killed. According to the Protection Cluster Working Group (PCWG), Operation Protective Edge killed at least 1,549 Palestinian civilians, including 539 children and 306 women. And at the time of this writing— almost six months since the end of hostilities — reconstruction is at a virtual standstill, while the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees, is reporting a funding gap of US$620 million for its programs and services in Gaza.

In such a context, Palestinian youth would seem to have two options: despair and hopelessness, on the one hand, or determined resilience, on the other. Palestinians have an amazing capacity for creative resistance to injustice and speak of the need for sumud, Arabic for “steadfastness.” All of MCC’s Palestinian partners embody the concept of sumud, and CFTA’s commitment to empowering youth is just one iteration.

For Mohammed, participation in CFTA’s programs has certainly activated his leadership potential. When CFTA decided to host the winter camp during the school break, it enlisted the help of a committee of children and youth, including Mohammed, to design and plan the activities. On the first day of camp, the participants sat together in the center’s various rooms and created a list of regulations and rules that would guide that activity’s play, such as: “Keep the room clean,” “respect others’ opinions” and “respect people’s differences.”

The tools provided by CFTA inspired Mohammed beyond helping to organize the camp. He has proven adept at electrical engineering, and the science lab at Bunat al Ghad enabled him to test alternative power sources that could be used in his community. Even before the latest war, the sole power plant in Gaza and the electricity bought from Israel and Egypt covered only a fraction of the population’s power needs, leading to a rolling cycle of only eight hours of electricity each day. Since Israel’s bombing of the power plant during the war and renewed scarcity of fuel to run the plant or generators, the availability of electricity across Gaza decreased to only four to six hours per day on average. Seeing the needs created by limited electricity, Mohammed created a system of battery-powered lights that could be used in households in Khan Younis. Mohammed gives credit to CFTA for providing space and encouragement for him to develop his ingenuity, noting that CFTA “helped us to help people directly targeted by war.” The close-knit culture of Gaza means that inspiring creativity in individuals like Mohammed will likely result in solutions for the people around them.

Encouraging Mohammed’s leadership skills has had a trickle-down effect on the younger children at the camp who learn to look up to their peers and rely on each other for inspiration. Mohammed Darwish, a shy 14-year old who enjoys writing poetry and wants to be a language teacher when he is older, said that he has learned from Mohammed Ramadan’s experiments in the lab.

When asked to identify skills learned at the center that they will continue to use as adults, both Mohammed Ramadan and Mohammed Darwish said that they had learned how to be leaders and how to respect other people’s opinions and values. CFTA’s history certainly affirms that these lessons, once learned, will continue to provide inspiration to others. Hani Selmi, an author in his thirties who coordinates the creative writing department, first came to CFTA at age ten. CFTA was hosting a Palestinian writer to talk with the children, so Hani brought several short stories he had written and showed them to the author. He cites that moment as a turning point in his own aspirations: armed with positive feedback and encouragement to pursue writing, Hani went on to publish seven books and short stories and hopes to encourage other children to do the same.

The ongoing Israeli occupation severely limits the realization of the potential of Palestine and its people. But in spite of violence, societal difficulties and issues that can only truly be solved on a national or international level, the children involved in CFTA’s programs know their own power and agency through their participation in coordinating and designing the center’s activities.

Jessy Hampton is Advocacy and Learning Tour Assistant for MCC in Palestine.

Learn more by reading the Spring edition of Intersections – Participation.

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