Sonia Nettnin: Teens Organize for Peace and Justic
Teens Organize for Peace and Justice
By Sonia Nettnin, United States
A growing number of teens who live in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Occupied Territories are in organizations that promote peace, justice and self-empowerment. Seeds of Peace, Pyalara, Shministim, and Dheisheh-Ibdaa.net are some examples of these youth movements in the region.
“Youth are the integral part for social change,” Ziad Abu Rish said. “Youth have been at the forefront of social change throughout history.” Abu Rish is a counselor with Seeds for Peace and a staff member with the American Friends Service Committee.
Seeds of Peace
Seeds of Peace is an NGO founded in 1993 by John Wallach. Every year they host a summer camp in Maine for teen youth from all over the world. Within that camp is a Middle East program.
“They talk about settlements, refugees, 1948, home demolitions, and experiences with suicide bombings,” Abu Rish said. “The program nuances our thinking and approach to the topics.”
During the 3.5 weeks the teen youth are in camp, they have coexistence sessions, which are mediated dialog meetings. Moreover, they have group arts, culture and sports activities (including the Seeds of Peace Soccer Team). “Playing as a team is an entirely different program,” Abu Rish said. The camp creates opportunities for awareness and understanding because the youth are from different cultures and countries.
In 1999, the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence was founded as an extension of the camp. According to Abu Rish, the center focuses on dialog (voluntary check-in meetings), outreach (Israeli and Palestinian youth give presentations in schools) and enhanced knowledge (training for co-existence projects). After the camp experience, some of the teens have a difficult time in their communities . . . some people may see them as traitors or collaborators. The outreach extension of the program addresses these issues – they established a parent’s forum also. Abu Rish said that the check-in meetings with the center have created a high per cent retention rate of youth members. In ten years, over 2,000 youth have participated in the camp. Through enhanced knowledge, the teens have language exchange: teens learn Arabic and Hebrew
The organization has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. government. In November 2003, House Concurrent Resolution 288 passed 415-0 by “honoring Seeds of Peace for its promotion of understanding, reconciliation, acceptance, coexistence, and peace among youth from the Middle East and other regions of conflict.” This information is from SeedsofPeace.org.
Another empowerment youth organization that has gained recognition is the Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation (Pyalara.org).
According to Abu Rish, Pyalara “expands awareness of the roots of the Palestinian people and does it in the context of the global community.” It achieves this objective because Pyalara trains youth in human rights and international law. This education develops their leadership skills.
As a result, Pyalara has a youth hotline. This social service helps teens talk about problems with family, friends and the occupation. Psychology and social service students staff the hotline. “There was a refusal about the psychological effects of living under occupation,” Abu Rish said. “The hotline is a form of progress for self-empowerment and self-determination.”
Palestinian people had one of the highest education rates per capita around the world. On a regular basis, curfews disrupt the academic year; and it causes a growing generation of illiterate youth. Pyalara formed emergency action plans so that university students teach the younger children during these times of confinement. This communal-based, grassroots education organization gives teens the opportunity to exercise the fundamentals of Pyalara; and it prepares the next generation of youth for Pyalara participation. Thus, youth culture emerges stronger from these experiences.
Pyalara’s “We Care Project,” gives youth the skills for engagement in peer counseling. Resources are not always accessible, especially during a curfew. The military occupation causes stress and pressure for the teens. Under these conditions, the youth depend on each other for assistance.
The organization’s journalism work established ongoing interaction with international journalists. Their program, Voices Across Borders, is an ongoing roundtable of discussion between the teens and journalists from the Arab world. The journalists are more informed about the communities they report in the news. This media-focused-association may have contributed to Pyalara’s monthly magazine for teens called The Youth Times. Across the Middle East, teens read and write about their experiences. Checkpoints prevent teen interactions, but this medium of creative _expression has transformed their interaction via media. It eliminates isolation and gives teens opportunities in journalism training. The publication has international attention. In its 23rd edition, the latest publication was sponsored by Unicef and the Office of the High Commissioners for Human Rights. Pyalara responds to the need of better media coverage of the conflict and empowers the youth generation.
In Hebrew, it means “high-school.” This youth refusal movement began in 2001, when 62 Jewish-Israelis from the Tel Aviv area wrote and published a letter of protest to the Israeli prime minister. They refused military service in the Israeli Defense Forces. As a result, the protesters numbered over 300 signatories in 2002. These conscientious objectors are growing in number and they are in the schools speaking to teens.
“Israel is a dramatically militarized society,” Abu Rish said. “Once you turn 18 or graduate high school, you become the property of the army.” By law, youth are required to report to the draft center. Some teens are discharged based on devotion to religious studies or psychiatric dismissal (for example, proven pacifism). If they check the box for conscientious objector, they face prison time in renewable cycles of 28-days. Recent media reports covered the five Israeli conscientious objectors who face more prison time (they have spent over a year in jail already).
“There’s extreme Israeli backlash against the refusal movement,” Abu Rish said. “They started to imprison people and the refusal rate went up.”
In Israel, social services are determined by a person’s years of military service. When a person applies for health care or education, they must answer if they have military service, where and how long. Discrimination arises from these prerequisites.
However, the refusal solidarity network provides social support for teens that choose refusal. It educates the younger generation growing up in this militaristic society. According to Abu Rish, it is one of the most fundamental movements within Israel and it has moral clarity in addressing issues. More information about this youth group is on their web site shministim.org.
(see also film review below)
Translated from Arabic, Ibdaa means “to create something out of nothing.” The Ibdaa Cultural Center is located in Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem. Dheisheh has a population of 11,000 people. Ibdaa’s education program cares for children of nursery and kindergarten age. On a regular basis, the cultural center has workshops about health care, human rights, leadership, and sewing. It provides employment for 60 families and the center has a growing library. Thus, the center promotes self-sufficiency.
The Ibdaa Dance Troupe is internationally known. They have toured all over the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. These teen performers exercise their leadership as they become teachers and leaders within the cultural center. They are involved in the theater production of their dance performances because they create their choreography, stage and lighting.
As they tour around the globe, these youth tell their life stories through artistic _expression. People experience a glimpse of life under military occupation; and audience members see how the teens feel about their homeland. Through dance and song, the teens make statements about life itself.
These teens embolden peoples’ participation in change. Their determination is an inspiration for the international community’s involvement. As agents of culture and society, they are shining examples for generations – past and future.
The Children of Ibdaa: To Create Something Out of Nothing
By Sonia Nettnin
On stage, they dance the movement of life. When they speak, their voices reveal the meaning behind the burning heart.
The Children of Ibdaa: To Create Something Out of Nothing is a moving documentary about the youth of Dheisheh refugee camp, West Bank. The dance troupe was founded by Ziad Abbas and Khaled Al-Saifi in 1993. The film is by S. Smith Patrick.
This stunning film, 29 minutes in length, explores the Palestinian history and complexities of home. Since the youths do not live in their families’ native villages, the film provides insight into the Palestinian Diaspora.
“A part of our lives are marked with a black line,” one boy said. His grandfather was a refugee from the 1948 expulsion. For the first time, the boy visits the remains of their village. “It is as if I am sitting with my grandfather . . . as I look at the land I feel that it is mixed with the sweat of my grandfather’s brow. . .” he expressed.
Their story represents the fragmented narrative, the disruption of life, which results in painful memories for millions of Palestinian people now. In the remnants of old houses are dark doorways, portals where the mind, heart and soul dance for moments . . . into a dream. Then, a rusted keyhole plate is discovered alongside a gutted foundation. The layers of stone withstand the passage of time and keys are kept in breast pockets.
While the youths sit on stone blocks, they savor their homeland experiences. The sun is ablaze and the wind carries scents of shrubs, trees and bushes. The children meld with the stillness of the land. Through the camera’s lens, they transform into white anemones.
“There is no place for kids to play, no place for gardens. No place for a person to live like the rest of the world,” one girl said. Dheisheh has a population of 11,000 people, confined to one square km. Aerial views of the camp show a landscape of flat roofs with water tanks on top. Trees are scarce. One boy talked about the lack of water and how the camp is like a prison. Razor wire fences surround the camp and checkpoints are the entrance. The encroachment of Israeli settlements leaves viewers with feelings of entrapment and of strangulation.
The film alternates between interviews with the children and historical facts explained via narrator. As the film’s backdrop connects with chronological events, it results in an emotive and informative narrative. The transitions between color and black-and-white footage enhance the scope of the film -- and render it whole.
A girl visits the ruins of her family’s village. “The stones – I feel that they are so filled with tears that when we return they will explode and cry with us so that the flower of freedom will sprout,” she said. Her personification of the ground is not about literary trope . . . she speaks her soul’s desire for Palestine. Her honesty and artistic expression are her being. The emotion in her face is hope - and Smith Patrick captures the feeling so it blazes beyond the film.
“We are not saying we want to expel the Jews like they expelled us. On the contrary, if they want to live with us we will not object,” another girl stated. Even though the youths see settlers live across the street from their families’ ruins, her inspirational statement for peace and unity is the future . . . if allowed fruition.
In 2003, Ibdaa had another U.S. tour. I was fortunate for the experience. Ibdaa means “to create something out of nothing.” Their performances are snapshots of life for the Palestinian people. Through song, dance, storytelling, and music, the youth performers portray Palestinian life past and present. They utilize music and oral recitation for performance setting. The interaction between sophisticated footwork (Debkeh) and detailed, hand positions creates a timeless place for audience members. Their graceful, arm movements and strong jumps give the performance an angelic dimension.
Audience members feel the land through these young artists. They use few, performance props. Their facial expressions project the feelings experienced by Palestinians pre-1948 and in present time; linear and cyclical time merge in theatrical artistry. The grit of sand-rock and soil, along with the fruits of village labor, are the people of Palestine. The performance depicts the unity between suntanned hands and sacred land . . . their every breath the life of olive branches.
Throughout the performance, the triplet count weaves its way into the three, dance segments. The dance pieces are Al-Khayma, Al-Waseeya and Al-Matakhal. One of the performances includes a duet of dramatic monolog and song performed acappella. All of the pieces have complex, free flowing movements that are ever changing. Most important is that Palestinian dance is about community. Through leg lifts, leaps and lunges they demonstrate that Palestinian life is about the close-knit, communal group. Social interaction is the crux of existence. The death of a family member affects the village family. Thus, Ibdaa’ artistry challenges individualism.
For these teens, challenge is reality. Their artistic expression captures their hardship and their struggle. The performance gives creative exposure to their cause. It is artistic media at its apex. Ibdaa reconstructs the bar for dance and theatrical performance through their transcendence. Language barriers for audience members are surpassed because the music of joy and pain is a language understood by humanity; audience members experience the resilience and hope of the Palestinian people. Ibdaa is performance transformation. These young artists inspire their audiences as they communicate their need for human rights. Their yearning is for peace and for freedom.
In the film, a girl sings the song “Phillistine.” Some of the lines are: “Palestine, don’t despair because of darkness / Because the light of the sword of Truth is coming. / When it comes the hills will turn green and will remain for long.”