After nine long weeks of rain and chilly weather, we were happily surprised to see the weather creep above 70 degrees this week. And as a reward for our students with good attendance, we spent our final two days of class at Jaberland, an amusement park here in Nablus. Even though it is still closed for the season, the lovely proprietors of Jaberland allowed us to rent out the park for a few hours of fun. For the first time, we were able to ride the TYO bus with some of our kids, who looked as excited as I’ve ever seen them. They came wearing sundresses and hats, toting coolers of lunches and snacks.
It wasn’t much of an amusement park as we know it, consisting simply of 3 or 4 rides and a 3D “cinema.” But it was enough, and it was all we could do to gather our classes to listen to the rules of the day before they made a mad dash for the rides. My 9 and 10 year olds rode the swings first, followed by the cinema. I was busy snapping pictures as they donned their 3D glasses. The video was a simulation of a roller coaster and was greeted by our kids with screams of delight and, at times, genuine fear.
Both days were special in that, for a moment at least, all of our kids were eager to participate and happy with the activities. The only complaints were for more rides and more games. It helped clarify the importance of the work of our center, and of centers like ours. Given a space to play, and the freedom to do it, children can flourish in a multitude of ways. Children who came to us shy and hesitant ten weeks ago were chanting together and demanding that I sit next to them on the rides.
Two of the most joyful days of the session were also two of the hardest because they were our last days with our kids. Working with them has been, by far, the highlight of each day, and I often found myself wishing I could spend my whole day with them. Of all the things I’ll miss in Palestine, I know I’ll miss them the most. As we say in Palestine, inshallah I will see them again.
On the way to Jaberland my framing of the fieldtrip was simply that it would be an exciting end to the session, especially for me since it was also my birthday. What better way to spend my demise into old age than reliving my childhood with my students. Once in the park, when all the kids were storming out of the buses, Mahmoud strolled out, licking his fingers and carrying a huge chocolate cake. It turns out that Mahmoud and I share the same date of birth. This commonality created an immediate bond between us; Mahmoud wanted me to be his partner in crime in all of the rides. Wherever he went there was a seat waiting for me at his side. As much as I wanted to be his sidekick, I also wanted to be by the sides of all my students and avoid the impending doom of our separation. I wanted to be around to hear all of Ahmad’s jokes and I wanted to be by Sondos’s side for her to cut off my circulation as she strangled my arm in fear during the 3-D movie. What I wanted the most was to hold on to those moments and provide a little instant happiness for my kids, most of who had never been to this mini, five ride amusement park.
Jaberland maybe a tiny park with no funnel cake or theme characters, but Disney World has nothing on it. The memories I have of this place will never be replicated. Nothing can beat Khaled making the shape of a heart with his hands as he said his final goodbye or Tasneem giving me a bracelet on the way back to the center asking me never to forget her. Nothing.
I need no “chaperoning a field trip” excuses to partake in fair rides – my fried-Oreo-and-swinging-boat binge every year at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair are a testament to that – but it is hard to imagine anything more fun than experiencing an amusement park through the eyes of children who have likely never been to one, as I did at Jaber Land for the end-of-session field trip last week. There are so many moments that will stick in my memory: the kids demanding that the ride operators go “faster, faster!”; or Shahd clutching my arm and huddling close during a 3D movie of a rollercoaster ride; or kids shouting the shahada during the flying swings. Amidst the happy shouts and the scorching heat, I got to reflecting on the concept of children’s rights.
As a phrase and an issue, children’s rights have never been especially compelling for me, recalling dry UN documents rather than living, breathing, hyperactive children. But since working at TYO, the concept has come to life for me. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children are both autonomous individuals who deserve basic human rights, like the freedoms of speech and association, and simultaneously, dependent members of society who need protection from harm. Those rights include the right to develop to the fullest through education; protection from harmful influences, abuse, and exploitation; and the right to participate in family, cultural, and social life. Under the Convention, refugee children are due special protection as well.
Here in Nablus, there is ample evidence of children whose rights to protection have been violated. We’ve all heard some difficult stories about life in the camps – about parental abuse and favoritism, about fathers who have been in prison for as long as their daughters have been alive – and we’ve seen physical evidence of others, marked on the children’s bodies in the form of burns and scratches.
But somehow, it’s the happy moments, as much as the difficult ones, that get me fired up about children’s rights. Seeing the kids bounding from one ride to another today, I reflected on the fact that, amidst all the grown-up difficulties of their lives, these kids deserve the chance to be kids. After all, Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child grants children the right to play and to access “opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.” All kids should get the chance to feel as carefree as our students did last week. Of course, you can have a happy and fulfilling childhood without the more consumerist pleasures the world has to offer, amusement parks among them – but I was so happy that TYO could provide the kids with one day to go on as many rides as (and sometimes more than) their stomachs could handle.
Part of what made the day exciting for the kids, I think, was the sense of choice and abundance – there was a wealth of rides to choose from. The field trip reminded me of a parallel moment – my very day of teaching, when I laid out markers, paints, crayons, and colored pencils and essentially told the kids to have at it in decorating paper lanterns they made. Fresh off a week of orientation on life in the refugee camps, I got a bit teary-eyed cleaning up my classroom after the kids left, feeling a newfound conviction that every child deserves to experience the simple pleasures of cutting up paper and painting it and having someone tell them it’s beautiful. Then, and throughout the session, I think what we have been trying to create for the kids is that sense of abundance – an abundance of art supplies and color, of affection and encouragement, of opportunities to learn and grow. That may not be by-the-book – I doubt there is any inalienable “right to abundance” or a “right to be carefree,” for children or for adults – but that’s exactly what I want for these kids and for all kids.
Last week’s trip to Jaberland can only be described as bittersweet. Although there were many laughs and much fun had by all, I could not help but think that this would be the last time I would be with my classes. To help stay the impending sadness, I tried to lose myself in the moment, enjoying every last second I had with the children.
While there were not many rides available for the children (such is the situation in Nablus), we made the best of the situation and relished every moment. On the Tilt-A-Whirl, there were chants of “Asraa! Asraa!” or “Faster! Faster!” As we rotated quicker the screams rose in a crescendo, until finally there were shouts of “Khalas!” or “Enough!” On the swinging ship, the pattern repeated itself, this time with “A’ala! A’ala!” or “Higher! Higher!” The thrills continued in the 3-D theatre, where the animals of the jungle came alive jumping off the screen, exciting some students and frightening others. Likewise, the students took pleasure in the flying swings and ferris wheel, each time begging to ride again. Aside from the occasional dizzy or nauseated student, there were no worries or cares to be had.
When the day finally came to a close, however, everyone’s emotions took a quick 180. Smiles and laughter were promptly replaced with frowns and teary eyes. The main question on everyone’s mind was when we, the interns, would be returning to Nablus. While I knew going into the day that it would be the last time I would see most, if not all, of these kids, it was not until that final parting moment that the gravity of the situation really hit me. I had some questions of my own.
How did ten weeks fly by so quickly? And at the same time, how, in just ten weeks, have I become so attached to these kids? Have I been a good teacher to them? Will any of the lessons I have taught them stick? Will they remember me when they are older? There are so many questions that I cannot answer. As for the question they asked me, will I be returning to Nablus, all I can say is “Inshallah” or “God willing.”