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Children of War at the Oasis of Peace III

August 2008, by Faryal Awan

Eyes full of excitement, smiling faces, infectious enthusiasm, and dreams come true... describes the summer camp run by Wahat As-Salam / Neve Shalom for kids from refugee camps in the West Bank.

Two camp sessions were held this year, aiming to change more children’s lives by reanimating the hopes and hearts of youngsters who rarely have a chance to live their dreams. For most kids living in refugee camps, experiencing life outside their camp is just a dream. This summer 86 of these children, mainly from the Tulkarem refugee camp, opened their eyes to a new life for one magical week. They were provided with opportunities that more privileged children would take for granted.

The dreams of young refugee camp children in Palestine are not like the dreams of most kids in most other countries. While an 8-year old child in London might dream of traveling to the USA, the child from Tulkarem dreams of seeing an airport; a 12-year old Israeli might dream of a trip to Disneyland, but the kid from Askar dreams of coming back one day to Wahat As-Salam. The recreational opportunities they encountered at the Oasis of Peace this past summer are exceedingly rare for these kids. The activities on offer included swimming (at the WAS/NS swimming pool) and a variety of sports, arts and crafts, cooking and baking activities, and field trips to Jerusalem and Jaffa, amongst other places.

This year’s summer camp was organized somewhat differently than in the past, with the primary school running the project from start to finish. When popular teacher Reem Nashef was asked to manage this year’s program, she was initially anxious about taking on something too logistically complex and challenging. But Reem loves to cook, and when she learned that all food for the campers would be prepared in-house (and not by the WAS-NS guest house), she was hooked. After school principal Anwar Dawood gave Reem the green light to “go ahead and buy three times the quantity of everything you think you need," she went on a mission to Ramle to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and then to Jerusalem for fresh meat. Fresh-baked bread was purchased on a daily basis from nearby Abu Ghosh. Amal and Leah, who together run the school’s administrative office, found themselves in a somewhat different work environment, cooking for the campers! Reem says that the good thing about having the food prepared in-house was that these chronically undernourished kids could grab a sandwich at any time. If they were hungry, they did not have to wait for meal time, but instead could make themselves some thing to eat on the spot.

Khalto (Aunt) Reem

Ahead of the first session’s opening day, Reem sat with the camp counselors, all high school students from the village. They made final decisions about the various activities, agreed on how to divide the kids into groups, and talked through the myriad details to be addressed. Reem says now that the reality of it all only hit her when she went to the checkpoint to fetch the kids. Met with hugs and adoration, she quickly earned the affectionate title of ’Khalto Reem’ (Aunt Reem) as a sign of respect. In fact, as the days went by, Reem was pleasantly surprised at how well-mannered these kids were. “I found it so amazing to see children behaving so well. They followed instructions and went by the rules of the camp at all times,” she says.

The children were divided into groups, each with its own group leader, a group name and a song they created on the first day. Arabic breakfast including humous, labane, eggs, and watermelon was served by the leaders every day at 8:00, after which the kids would gather by group to sing their group theme song. ’Team Warood” had its own mascot in the form of Mahmoud, a 12-year-old boy, better known as “Jackson” for his break-dancing talent. He would often motivate the team in the morning, by performing some Michael Jackson moves in the middle of the circle. Will Tantoco, an intern from the US, taught the kids the ’robot’ move. They would mob him whenever they saw him, clamoring to demonstrate their ’robot’ prowess.

Every morning, Reem would talk with the children about their feelings about previous day’s program and explain the program for the day just beginning. The daily schedule included arts and crafts, baking things, and swimming and other sports. One day the kids enjoyed a big bouncing castle and water fights with each other and their group leaders. They were surprised that ’Khalto Reem’ joined in this horseplay with them and seemed to relish being splashed with water.

Trips

Each of the field trips produced a string of "the first time I ever..." for these children: first glimpse of the sea, of a boat, of the airport! Even the sight of an Orthodox Jew in religious garb was new for them. The atmosphere rang with the innocent laughter of childhood as dozens of children clapped and cheered every time they saw something new.

Al Quds. All these campers are Muslims. Their families typically have large-framed pictures of the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in their sitting rooms — yet most of the children had never been to Al-Quds (Jerusalem). On their field trip there, the campers walked around the Old City, through the souq (market) and into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was their introduction to Christianity, and they were able to relate the two monotheistic faiths because Jesus is known as the Prophet Issa in Islam. The highlight of that trip was of course the Haram Al-Sharif (Temple Mount). The children were shocked at the sheer size and because the ’Festival of Al Aqsa’ was taking place when the first group visited the mosque, the entire area was packed with people. Bea Pempeit, a WAS-NS volunteer at the camp who is also a primary school teacher in her home town in Germany, was amazed at how disciplined the kids were. “They listened to the leaders and really showed respect for authority. It is very different in Germany, where you have to tell children the same thing over and over and they still don’t listen — especially when they are so young.” She adds: “These kids are so different. Everything surprises them and makes them happy. They have very little, in terms of material things, yet they are still so happy. Maybe it is different when they are at home...”

Jaffa and the sea. The kids could not contain themselves on the way to Jaffa ("Are we there yet?!" "So are we there yet?!" — every two minutes). Even though they did not know much about Jaffa, the chance to see the Mediterranean was intoxicating. Most had never seen the sea except on television, and on small screens, at that. That first look at the sea evoked joy and excitement beyond even the expectations of their leaders, who had been anticipating some excitement. The children raced across the beach to the water, plunging in, swimming, laughing, shouting, splashing. Back on the sand, they made sandcastles. But there was one aspect of this experience that was oddly new and strange: “Why is the water salty?” one boy asked, and "It is hurting my cuts!" another yelped. Competing with the beach experience was the boat cruise, another thrilling first.

For two children from the second camp session, Jaffa was more than just the sea and a boat cruise. Their parents are refugees from Jaffa and had always told the children stories about what Jaffa was like. They were excited to see places that they had heard so much about without ever having imagined that they would get to see them.

Surprise extras. And to cap the travelogue, there was also a surprise trip to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem for the first group and a trip to the Soreq stalactite cave for the second group.

It takes a village!

WAS-NS children and families were intensively involved in the camp program this year. Students from the primary school were invited for events in the evenings. They played soccer together till late hours and learnt a lot from each other. "The [Village] kids were fascinated by the folk dancing (dabke) that was performed on the last day [by the second group of campers] and are still trying to imitate them," notes Raida Aishe-Khatib, a Village resident and an English teacher at the primary school. "Our kids thought it was a pity that they didn’t teach them before they left. Maybe next time we will have more interaction with both sets of children so that they can learn things from each other."

Raida also showed great Arab hospitality and kindness when she requested village families to bake homemade cakes for the campers, explaining that it was a nice gesture to make for children who were away from their homes and families for the first time ever. "It was something beautiful we could do for them, something connected to home," she said. Village residents and C&D staff agreed, responding with an array of cakes and sweets.

Parting with laughter and song

Each of the two camp sessions had different, but equally enjoyable, final evening celebrations. Intern Will Tantoco, speaking about the first group, noted that the best and most bittersweet night for them was their last night at the village. There was a big party with dancing, singing, and desserts. "The volunteer house helped make two of the cakes," he noted. "I think I took 200 pictures that night. They taught me how to do the dabke. We all laughed and danced until it was way past their bedtimes. I remember thinking that night, how I wish I could give all of them scholarships to study abroad and see other parts of the world. Working in the camp was one of the most rewarding experiences I had while interning at WAS/NS, " he concluded.

The second group performed Palestinian folk dances and put on a play, and although fewer residents were available that night to sit in the audience, those who did so were deeply moved and impressed. One such response may be found here.

For the campers, it was amazing, but not really complicated. In her thank-you note, Iman, a 9-year-old girl from Tulkarem, summed it up succinctly: “Coming to this camp, a lot of my dreams have come true... going to Jaffa, [and] Al Quds, [and] riding a train and a boat.” The camp gave these youngsters a place to vent some of the intolerable pressures they face every single day. The experience brought joy, creativity and hope into the lives of these underprivileged children and adolescents, each of whom richly deserves and desperately needs a chance for a better life. From the standpoint of the village, the consensus is that giving them a week of pleasure and joy and then sending them back to the joylessness of their miserable routine is a painful thing to do — but that giving them the experience of a lifetime and some hope for a better future is better than nothing. Every dream requires something grounded to cling to, like ivy climbing up a trellis toward the sun. Once kids have experienced the semblance of a normal life, even if only for a week, perhaps they have a better idea of what they can aim for and more strength to persevere. This, at least, is our hope for them and their families.

We would like to thank:

- The German Friends of Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam and the Bruno Hussar Fund for another summer of generous support.

- The Primary School Staff - Anwar Dawood, Reem Nashef, Raida Aishe-Khatib, Amal Skalla and Leah Klein.

- The camp counselors - Mai Shbeta, Nadine Shbeta, Nadeen Nashef, Leyali Karaman-Abbas, Kerem Ben Ishay Bairey, Tali Sonnenschein.

- The village youth - Sama Daoud, Sami Manaa and Nur Najjar.

- The volunteers and interns - Faryal Awan, Wilfredo Tantoco, Bea Pempeit, and Megan Cipperly.

- Families and staff who baked cakes, came to watch the performances, and generously gave of their encouragement and good will!

THANK YOU TO ALL!!!


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