This week, as we settle into life at TYO, we reflect on our experiences thus far through the senses of sight, sound, and touch.
In TYO’s neighborhood of Khallet al-Amood, the sight of children playing in the street is a common fixture. During my less than two weeks here, I have grown accustomed to seeing them scramble back a forth across the street chasing a soccer ball every time I leave the center or look out the kitchen window. Although it always amazes me to watch them power BMX bikes up an incline that rivals anything in San Francisco, their presence is a constant reminder of the lack of early childhood education in the West Bank and the importance of TYO’s Core Program for children.
As I learned during our week long intern orientation and my friends on the BMX bikes demonstrated, TYO’s Core Program offers an essential service to local children ages 4-5 because there are only three public kindergartens in the West Bank. Therefore, the majority of children have no access to education until they reach the age of six, at which time some are socially and mentally unprepared to begin their primary education. In comparison, I entered preschool at the age of 3 and began learning, among other things, ‘important’ life lessons, such as what a glitter sandwich tastes like or what happens when you throw rocks at classmates.
On Tuesday I had the opportunity to observe the Core Program sports class and I could not help but smile at the sight of children, some the same age as those out on the street, engaged and enthusiastic about activities that promoted teamwork and self-esteem in addition to motor skills and hand-eye coordination. With continued support, these children will enter primary school in a state that is conducive to education and wellness, and prepared for any challenges that lie ahead.
Everywhere you go in the TYO building, the sound of joyful laughter pours out of classrooms, down hallways, and fills the two main atriums. Although we often associate joyful laughter with children, this past week, I was reminded of how important laughter can be in my interactions with the volunteers I work with at TYO.
At our intern-volunteer lunch on Wednesday, I had a chance to sit down and meet the five volunteers working with me in my Art and Critical Thinking class this session. Over a meal of manakeesh, we had a chance to not only discuss my vision for the class, but also to learn about each other’s backgrounds and interests. While I have taken three years of Arabic, my ability to speak Arabic is far from fluent, so with my translator by my side, we began to go around the table introducing ourselves. As my first volunteer quickly began to tell the table about his background, my translator tried to interject, in order to translate what he was saying into English. However, I told her I understood him, and turned to him, asking him in Arabic to continue on. For a moment, he sat there stunned that I had not only just said something in Arabic, after talking in English for the entire time prior, but also that I had told him that I understood what he had said in Arabic. Then, the entire table burst out laughing with me, as we “broke the ice.”
After that moment, the conversation at the table changed. My volunteers began to tell me interesting facts about themselves beyond the basics of majors at university and ages; they told me funny anecdotes; and, they began to ask me about myself. Finally, my vision for my team of volunteers, translator, and teacher working together to teach Critical Thinking and Art, began to take shape. While neither my volunteers nor myself will ever understand each other in our own native tongue, I do not think a language barrier exists anymore between us– the sound of joyful laughter transcends that bound.
What does it feel like to be in Nablus? An incredibly complex yet simple question. Emotionally, it feels all sorts of ways, most of which I probably won’t even be able to comprehend for many months after I leave this nestled valley town. However, tangibly, I can explain to all readers what my sense of touch is absorbing while here in Palestine.
Maybe I can start with the olive oil soap I discovered in my bedroom as a welcome present. Curated in the Old City, each bar is stamped and wrapped by the hands of seasoned Palestinians in a building that is over 3,000 years old. As I hold the sleek soap under the skink tap I can feel it nourishing and cleaning my hands.
My hands – once so free and wild in the USA, now suddenly required to be far more reserved upon my arrival to the Middle East. These hands, so unsure of who to exchange greetings with, who to hold, when to hug, how to eat, where to wave, and overall, how to be respectful. How to be culturally pragmatic in a society where most women cover themselves in public – my hands are still learning.