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Children of War at the Oasis of Peace II

Summer Camp Report 2007

Friday 31 August 2007, by Ranin Boulos

After the success and the excitement of the Palestinian Summer Camp last year, our friends in Germany, through the Bruno Hussar Fund, kindly and generously agreed to support another camp this year.

Just as last year, the NSWAS Humanitarian Aid Program committee asked me to organize and direct the Camp. This made me happy both because it signaled the success of last year’s camp, and because it gave me the opportunity to be involved in providing a week of happy, unforgettable memories for another 45 kids.

This year, the Camp was conducted in partnership with Kofia, a Palestinian NGO in the West Bank town of Tulkarem. Another difference between this and last year’s camps was a greater focus on art activities. We provided the children with classes in African drumming, dancing and singing, taught by professional teachers from Tam Tam, a professional ensemble. We also offered theater classes taught by a professionally known actor, Ibrahim Sakala, as well as plastic arts lessons taught by a very well-known artist, Nihad Dabit; and finally, a cinematography course taught by NSWAS member Hezzi Shuster, who teaches media at the NSWAS Primary School.

Such high-quality courses are often lacking in the activities offered by NGOs to Palestinian children. But we felt that these children deserved the best, like children anywhere.

Although we ran a similar summer camp last year, we felt exactly the same excitement this time. In a way, the stress was greater, because we wanted to surpass last year’s success. But I am happy and proud to say that we did it again, and even better.

The summer camp started on the 22nd of July and ran until the 30th. Planning the Camp was not easy, and required that I begin to work on it immediately following my return to NSWAS in the Spring (following graduation from the City University of London).

Before the Camp

There were 45 children, aged 10-14, plus two adult women who escorted the children.

Even though I had worked on obtaining entry permits to Israel for the children of last year’s camp, the fear of dealing with it again was still with me. I knew there was a real chance that either the children or their escorts would be refused. Legally, children under the age of 16 do not need permits but we prefer to have them to be on the safe side, and the adult escorts, without which it would be impossible to run the camp, definitely need permits. The thing that annoyed me most was the entire process of obtaining the permits, especially since the officials deal with the kids as numbers and not as human beings. They kept saying, “Number so-and-so cannot enter… number so-and-so can enter…” and I would think to myself, “Oh my God… they are referring to kids as numbers… it’s horrible.”

The Camp was located mainly on the campus of the NSWAS Primary School. The children slept in classrooms on mattresses with their youth leaders present to provide supervision 24 hours a day during the entire period of the Camp.

A few days before the Camp started, we held a couple of staff meetings, to inform the youth leaders of the exact program, to prepare them, and to answer all their questions.

Arrival day

The children left home at 8 AM and, although the journey from Tulkarem would “normally” take about 45 minutes, they arrived only at 4 PM.

They went through many checkpoints and a lot of questioning and searching. To begin with, two hours were needed just to get the permits that were ready and waiting for them at the first checkpoint in Tulkarem. The kids told me that there were many people waiting to get their permits, so they had to wait for two hours to get theirs.

When the kids arrived, we welcomed them, but they looked tired and scared. We took them to the school, which would be their home for a week, talked to them and helped them to feel more relaxed.

The most amazing thing was that the children who had participated in last year’s summer camp had sent letters for us with this year’s group! We were amazed and touched to see how these kids still miss us and remember every single moment of the camp.

After introductions, we split the children into groups. Each group had two youth leaders.

And this is when our journey starts…

Art Activities

The children got the chance to participate in several courses:

• African drumming, dancing and singing:

This introduced the children to a different culture and different art. The teachers not only taught them to sing, dance and drum but also gave them a background on where and why this kind of song and dance is practiced in Africa.

• Plastic Arts:

The children worked with various materials and created beautiful things that they presented at the last day of the camp in a very professional exhibition.

• Theater:

This course was the most interesting. The children were asked to pick a topic and to make it into a play. We were amazed to see how talented these children are: They were able to show us their reality, with all its pain, especially what they go through at the checkpoints, using the play they created and the way they acted their roles. Their performance was absolutely breathtaking and we all had tears in our eyes.

• Cinematography:

In this course the children learned how to write a scenario and turn it into a movie. They learned the terminology of filming – “shots”, “zoom in”, “zoom out”, “long shot”, “short shot”. After they wrote the scenario they were divided into actors, directors and camera operators. Finally, their teacher took the material to an editing room and edited their movies for presentation on the last night of the camp… and the results were unbelievable: humorous, vivid, highly entertaining.

• Outdoor activities

Jaffa: At first we went to the Sraya Arabic/Hebrew theater, to see a play. The kids were so excited, especially when the play started and they discovered that one of the actors was their theater teacher at the camp. After the play, a tour guide took us around the old city of Jaffa and explained to the children about its history. Next, there was a boat waiting for us that took the kids sailing for an hour. Then came the part the kids had been dreaming about: swimming in the sea! The look in their eyes when they entered the water said everything.

All things must come to an end, and getting the kids out of the sea was a difficult task. We took them for lunch at the Abu El-Afia restaurant; the kids enjoyed so much the feeling of someone serving them food.

Jerusalem: we took the children to the zoo; they had a few hours to walk around with their youth leaders to explore, see the various animals and feed them. Each child received a map of the zoo and toured according to it. Afterwards, we went to the Old City of Jerusalem. The kids entered the ‘Aqsa mosque, which for them was really exciting. This is the place that they hear about so much.

• Last night of the summer camp:

Sunday July 29 was the last night of the Camp, and a special closing event was arranged at the village auditorium. It was the children’s opportunity to present all that they had learned during an intensive week of artistic creation. In the audience were residents of NSWAS and guests from outside. The program began with words of welcome, presentation of the children and their youth leaders, and thanks to all those who had contributed and made the Camp a success. Then the main program began.

The program included:

1) Exhibition of artwork: the children walked around with the guests and showed them their creations in plastic arts, which were displayed on walls and tables all around the auditorium.

2) African drumming performance - the boys sat in a circle, each with a drum, on which they beat out their newly learned African rhythms, while at the same time the girls joined them with an African song and dance that they had studied and practiced during the week.

3) Performance of an Arabic folklore dance that the kids had prepared and worked on by themselves.

4) Presentation of the short movies the children had made in the film making course.

5) Showing of a short movie of the summer camp - filmed by Chloe Goodwin and edited by Hezzi Shuster.

6) Presentation of framed group photos to each child.

The children were amazing: They showed everyone how talented they are and how much they had done in a week. Everyone present was very impressed and touched.

Youth Leaders and Volunteers

Based on the experience of last year, and the fact that this was a larger group, professional youth leaders were required. I wrote to the Baladna organization in Haifa, which provides youth leadership courses for university students. The organization was able to recruit four youth leaders, who were joined by another two from NSWAS.

To make sure that the youth leaders from outside the village would be able to function well, meetings were arranged to get to get acquainted and prepare them for this unique experience. Now, after the camp’s impressive success, it is clear that a large factor was the extraordinary work done by the youth leaders.

Let’s present these amazing hard-working youth leaders who were so wonderful in working with the children:

1) Khaled Mansour: Nazareth, 22 years old, law student at Tel-Aviv University;

2) Gh’aida Msallam: Eilabun, 22 years old, law student at Tel-Aviv University;

3) Roman Abu Sneieh : Jerusalem, 23 years old, recently graduated with a degree in government strategy and diplomacy;

4) Jack Nasr: Ramallah, 22 years old, business student at Bir Zeit University;

5) Noor Najjar: Wahat al-Salam/ Neve Shalom, 19 years old, recently graduated from high school and heading to her academic studies;

6) Ranin Nasr: Wahat al-Salam/ Neve Shalom, 19 years old, recently graduated from high school and heading to her academic studies;


Volunteers:

Natalie Boulos: 19 years old, from NSWAS. Natalie worked as a youth leader in the summer camp last year. This year she couldn’t do that, because of other commitments, but she still came every day to the camp and helped us enormously.

Zsuzsanna Parej: a volunteer, a university student from Hungary who worked alongside us and helped us through the entire period;

Chloe Goodwin: an 18 year-old volunteer from the Unites States; Chloe’s part in the summer camp was documenting the camp through the entire period by taking pictures and filming.

In Conclusion

First and most importantly, I want to express my sadness and pain for the suffering and humiliation these children had to go through in order to get to the village. To think that these adolescents aged 10-14 had to sit in the bus for more than 7 hours! The children couldn’t go to the bathroom and ran out of water. The Israeli army turned their journey into a nightmare. Soldiers kept on entering the bus at each checkpoint, searching the kids and shouting at them in a vulgar way. While greeting the children and asking them about their journey, one of the children told me: “Your soldiers are scary…” and these words broke my heart. When he said “your soldiers,” he looked at me the way he would look at the soldier who shouted at him. I looked at him and said, “These are not my soldiers - not at all - I am Palestinian just like you.” But I saw in his eyes that he was not convinced; if I am Palestinian like him, so why is my life better than his? These are the kinds of thoughts the children had.

After their week in NSWAS, these children became a big part of our life. We loved them, every single one, and we were loved by them in return. When the bus arrived to take them home, they made us swear to God in front of everyone that we would come and visit them.

This summer camp was more than I expected it to be. All I wanted was to give these children the best of everything. They were thirsty for everything, and most of the things they saw and did here were their first time ever: the swimming pool, the sea, a real theater, the zoo, being at a restaurant, holding a camera… All these were firsts for them, and most importantly, for the first time in their life they felt free and safe.

From the day the children arrived, we gave them the feeling they could trust us - the feeling that we are all the same and we are not here to pity them, because one thing these kids will not tolerate is losing their pride. The thing that broke my heart the most is to see how these children skipped the period of their childhood; it seemed like they were born straight into being adults, with small bodies but the maturity of a grownup. This kind of summer camp should keep on going forever. For us, it is work; but for them, it’s the only time in their life when they feel happy and free.

Special thanks:

• Many thanks to the German Friends and supporters of this blessed cause;
• Kofia, a Palestinian NGO and our partner organization for this camp;

• To NSWAS departments: Communications & Development Department, the Humanitarian Aid Program Committee, the Hotel, the Dining hall, Auditorium, School, School for Peace and the Pool. All the facilities, food and other accommodation needs were donated by these village departments.

• To Wissam, a long-time friend from Beit Sira, who helped us enormously during the Camp.


Most photos by Chloe Goodwin.


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