How, Not If

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Nada smiles with her Women's beginner IT class

Nada smiles with her Women’s beginner IT class

TYO is a non-political organization positioned in a climate of endless politics. Discussing my time here without mentioning words like “occupation” or “checkpoints” has been challenging – but if use of semantics in a blog has troubled me so, I can only imagine the massive effort which goes into balancing TYO away from political rhetoric in a land built on a foundation of political rhetoric.

Thoughts of nightly raids, arrests, and the sound of F16s all melt away as the faces of women approach each other in greeting. They range in age, but their unifying characteristics are comical banter, a curiosity and will to learn, and above all the wish to leave politics at the doorstep and enjoy each other’s company. TYO is where women come to forge connections, learn new skills, and take advantage of opportunities they’ve never had. I had the privilege of teaching the beginner’s computer class, which was rewarded daily by the pride women displayed at performing simple tasks like as copy & paste — which, considering many had never used a computer before, was a remarkable achievement.

Whether it was Beginner IT classes or assistant teaching at the honor’s college at An-Najah University, I was consistently surprised by the Palestinian people’s good humor and ambitious attitudes in the face of difficulty. My students at Najah were eager to engage in dialogue in both PR and Leadership classes, the overarching theme being, “How can we improve our society?” What was remarkably surprising to me was that it was never a questions of if they have that power, but how they can utilize themselves for the betterment of society.

I was most impressed by the drive present in TYO’s Fostering Women Entrepreneurs in the Middle East project, a program which actively seeks to incubate female entrepreneurs in Palestine. The women in the program were driven by a remarkable passion for independence. Constantly seeking to improve their services and products, to expand beyond the confines of locale, they stand as a touching portrait of hope and empowerment in a land where the economy is less than hospitable.

By remaining respectfully a-political, I believe TYO it is doing something important for Palestinian society: nurturing a positive outlook. Rather than wallowing in the feeling of defeat, Palestinians are asking the questions, “How can we get back up? How can we improve?” — and TYO seeks to help Palestinians answer that question through empowerment.

-Zahi Khouri Fellow, Nada

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Parting Ways With Palestine

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Amanda teaches her class 'K is for Kite!'

Amanda teaches her class ‘K is for Kite!’

As an Assyrian American from Chicago, I thought I had virtually no ties to Palestine. The homeland of my mother and father is in Northern Iraq. I came to Palestine to learn how to teach under pressure and to strengthen my professional skills. The more time passed, the more parallels I began to find between Palestine and my own life. The women here are strong-willed, not afraid to speak their minds – much like my mother, my aunts, my cousins. The people here feel a strong attachment to their culture and heritage despite being displaced – so much like the Assyrian people. There are Muslims and Christians living together peacefully, side-by-side, much like the childhood my mother describes to me while she was growing up in Iraq. The food, the music, the sense of humor – all of it resonated with me and the life I have lived up until this point.

This land is a part of me now. These people are not people I can just say goodbye to and forget about. They will consume my thoughts and find their way into my days far after I’ve left here. They will eat away at my heart, make me laugh and cry. Maybe I’m just a really emotional person.

You can’t know until you’ve been here. You can’t understand until you’ve seen the little girls and little boys screaming “Khalto! Khalto! Khalto!” – Auntie, auntie, auntie, the university students eager to learn as much as they can from you, the women dancing Zumba to their heart’s content during the few hours they get to themselves. Having iftar dinner with the local staff. TYO has been a place where I could truly be myself. I will sincerely miss this land and these people and am extremely grateful to have had the chance to share my summer with them – so much so that my words seem meaningless or empty even as I write them. My mother asked me today, “Do you feel like you actually made a difference? Like you helped any of your students?” I told her I had no doubt that I did, but if anyone was the student here it was me.

-TYO Intern, Amanda

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A final goodbye

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Dari teaches children in her Core AM English class a dance move.

Dari teaches children in her Core AM English class a dance move.

On our last day of session at TYO, we took the children to the pool. Most of the kids could not contain their excitement and began splashing at the earliest possible moment. Ghazal didn’t follow suit. In the five weeks that I taught her English, she did not once smile. This was despite many efforts through group play and crafts that were meant to advance the kids’ English ability. But somehow, with the help of one of the Core AM teachers, we were able to get Ghazal to join the others in the pool. She only stuck her feet in at the edge but when she realized the fun that can be had there, there was no stopping her. She kicked and splashed to her little heart’s content and for the first time, I saw her laugh.

That is what childhood is about: learning and laughing. I am so grateful to have been able to work with TYO to give children the opportunity to learn and laugh in a safe and loving environment. Seeing the confidence with which they shout answers to questions asked and the excitement they brought to every English class made every minute of data collection and report writing worth it. Countless times over. It was also amazing to see the initiative each child took to make class their own safe space. Some asked to sing in front of the class and others asked for extra alphabet worksheets. It was inspiring to see the thrill with which my students devoured the opportunity to learn through shouting and playing and making a mess with glitter. This showed me how TYO succeeds in providing the opportunity for better childhoods.

I’m incredibly sad to be leaving because of the many beautiful moments I’ve had here. Seeing Ghazal so happy to be splashing in the pool reaffirmed the hope I have for Palestine. Yes, there is a mountain range that needs to be climbed in order for peace and equality to come. But I think that for every Palestinian child that is empowered through learning and a positive childhood, another mountain is claimed. I’m not ready to leave Palestine because although a child’s laughter is an incredible step toward peace, it is only the first step. While I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I have had to contribute I this way, I deeply wish to be here for the extended journey.

-TYO Intern, Darializa

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The Last Post!

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Yvonne wave goodbye with her Core PM English class.

Yvonne wave goodbye with her Core PM English class.

“Khalto Eve! Khalto Eve!” My class waved at me for the last time from the windows of their school buses, and I waved back as they disappeared into the distance. TYO’s summer program has flown by, but the faces that left me behind were happy. It did not feel like that would be our last goodbye, and I began to reflect upon my experiences over the past couple of months, and several memories of TYO stood out in particular.

Whilst working for the Student Training and Employment Program (STEP!) at An-Najah National University, the vast changes in the students between the first and last classes were phenomenal. At the start of the course, 90% of students did not have a CV and cover letter, and did not know how to network or create opportunities for themselves. By the end of the course, students had perfected professional the professional documents and grown exponentially in self-confidence. In one student’s words, “This class confirmed for me the idea of working together, to keep working to fix mistakes, and not to be unhappy if I have some problems but work to solve them.”

In Core English, the most significant experience I had with my students was witnessing the confidence they gained as they progressed over the course of the program. The most significant change occurred when we used a universal language, that of movement. By linking actions to words, our communication vastly improved, and when we used song, dance and games to learn, the children’s understanding was at its strongest. When my students began to march into my classroom, singing our greetings song at the tops of their voices without even being asked, I knew that I could not make them more confident in using their new vocabulary.

For The Women’s Group, it is hard to pick a single memory from the course on which to focus. At the beginning of the program, we found that women attended precisely because they had decided to make a change and become the driving forces of their lives, and of their community. Over the course, they overcame many personal challenges to hold true to this goal, improving their own fitness and questioning nutritional practices to learn about how best to provide for their families.

To facilitate these experiences at TYO, be part of so many personal changes (and to become Khalto Eve, and gain many new aunties myself!) has been an honour. The effect that my students and Nablus has had on me is certainly more substantial than the effect I may have had on them. I know that I will always carry these inspirational memories with me, and as “we only part to meet again,” I will not make this a final goodbye, but look forward to the next meeting.

-TYO Intern, Yvonne

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Reflecting on a New Home

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While teaching the letter 'H', Michelle shows children in her Core AM English class what it means to be happy.

While teaching the letter ‘H’, Michelle shows children in her Core AM English class what it means to be happy.

As I sit on the balcony overlooking Nablus writing this blog post, I  am in awe at the fact that I came back to the land that my grandfather fled from 66 years ago during the 1948 War and was never permitted to return to. Before coming to Palestine, I rarely identified myself as a Palestinian. Since both my parents were born in Lebanon and because I was born and raised in the United States, I tended to see myself solely as American-Lebanese. Throughout my time here in Palestine, however, I have felt a connection to a part of my heritage which I never embraced before. My 7 weeks at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, teaching English to 4-8 year-olds and a professional competency class to college students at An-Najah University allowed me to connect with bright Palestinian youth who serve as the future of Palestine. As I reflect on my experiences here at TYO, all of the strong, resilient, kind, and compassionate people I have met come to mind. Despite the struggles of every day life in Palestine, including home invasions, arrests, poverty, and domestic violence, the children, women, and university students always managed to keep their infectious smiles and positive attitudes with their heads held high.

I was amazed to see the way that my students were able to forget about whatever hardships they faced the night or day before and truly engage in class and the activities. For instance, in my morning English class the day after home invasions in the neighborhood where TYO is located, students who were usually very responsive were tiredly rubbing their eyes and struggling to stay awake. I went over to of my most approachable and active students from the neighborhood who could barely keep his eyes open and asked him what letter we were working on. He tried so hard to answer the question with a big smile on his face, but could simply not focus on what we were learning because of his fatigue. This interaction affected me because it served to summarize the sad truth that the occupation affects children in unimaginable ways. Children are not only hindered psychologically, but also academically. Nonetheless, my students still came to TYO everyday prepared to learn, play, and grow.

Not only have I had the chance to engage with the warm and welcoming students, volunteers, and local staff and discover an indispensable part of my background, I have also had the opportunity to refine my professional skills and learn about the field of development in the Middle East. As an international relations and Middle East studies double major, I aspire to empower women and children in the Middle East through education. My experience at TYO has given me hands-on experience, allowing me to translate my emotions from the struggles I have witnessed into hard work and fun activities for my students. I have also learned about important practices, such as moderating and evaluating, and about NGO work in the Middle East as a whole. After I complete my studies, I hope to return to Palestine and continue the work that TYO and other organizations have begun. Therefore, instead of saying goodbye, I will say “See you later!” to everyone here because as we say in Palestine, Inch’Allah I will return one day soon.

-Zahi Khouri Fellow, Michelle

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Until We Meet Again: Last Week of The Women’s Group

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Last week, The Women’s Group at TYO marked the final few days of the Summer 2014 session with certificates for outstanding commitment, an intensive seminar on the dangers of withholding food from children during the current season of Ramadan, and an exciting field trip to the local swimming pool. In these last bits of celebration, over 100 women wrapped up what’s been an eventful, awareness-raising five weeks as we’ve covered topics such as protecting one’s self after violence, preventing women’s cancers, and the problematic consequences of the past-time of shisha smoking. And we know that it wasn’t just an information overload without implementation- TYO’s monitoring and evaluation assessments demonstrated an over 90% increase of knowledge on key empowerment issues within participants, and we’re planning follow up throughout the summer to check-in about how various parenting tips or health best practices are working for women at home.

TYO Computer class student Riham smiles with her hard-earned certificate

TYO Computer class student Riham smiles with her hard-earned certificate

Yet despite the enthusiasm and accomplishment of this session, we know that it’s far from our final step to success for women’s rights in Palestine. Recent publications like the United Nations Secretary-General Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict provide data for the sort of dangers that mothers face daily in Nablus and surrounding areas. The report outlines some of the key challenges and barriers for raising families in Palestine, such as highly limited movement, children witnessing traumatic events, extreme difficulties accessing proper healthcare, and heightened volatility for intra-personal violence. Further, the document cites Palestine as one of 50 countries around the world where children face extreme exposure to armed conflict- so while we wished mothers a few months of summer fun until we start the next session, we know our work to support Palestinian women doesn’t cool off.

Women smile with their certificates and excitement at the end of the Summer 2014 session.

Women smile with their certificates and excitement at the end of the Summer 2014 session.

Throughout the upcoming weeks, here’s a few ways we’re working to continuing our women’s empowerment efforts and offering a strong network to mothers:

  • Follow Up on Children’s Sleeping: During this session, we spent a special seminar discussing the severe dangers of a lack of sleeping in children- particularly during the Ramadan month, when community norms shift and it’s typical to see kids playing outside until dawn. We know this is harmful for both immediate and long-term health outcomes, ranging from both cognitive development issues to exposure to armed violence, and we utilized speakers from the Ministry of Health and UNRWA to educate moms about the risks, as well as how to best encourage improved sleep in their kids and teens. Over the course of the summer, we’ll be checking in with moms to gage if they’re implementing what they learned during session in terms of bedtimes- but also offering additional support if they’re struggling in this, and encourage their feedback about what would be most helpful in the next session if we speak about this topic again.
  • Checking in Stopping Shisha: Shisha- also known as argilah or hookah- is one of the most dangerous forms of tobacco, with just one puff causing the same damage as smoking an entire cigarette. This session, over 95% of women learned this for the first time, after assuming that shisha was a safer form of smoking, or that it didn’t come with harmful effects. After hearing from the Nablus Police Department as well as the Ministry of Health about the fatal consequences of shisha, multiple women made pacts to permanently quit the practice. However, smoking isn’t an easy habit to knock- so we’ll be following up with women who committed to quitting to check in on their progress, and offer additional supports from the Ministry of Health- such as smoking cessation literature and twelve-step processes- to make sure women feel supported and strengthened in their endeavor.
  • New Partnership Development: Within The Women’s Group, not all of our work is directly accomplished with beneficiaries- in fact, a key aspect of our women’s empowerment programs are to connect with local institutions and civil society organizations that equally aim to empower women. Through these partnerships, we recruit speakers for The Women’s Group, but also create a stronger support network for women in Palestine. While we work with over 40 local organizations currently, the down time between sessions is one of our busiest times for forging new relationships, as we look to bring more innovative approaches and organizations to our participants.

As referenced in recent UN reports, it’s clear that summer months in a place like Palestine can be shadowed by the ongoing, highly-challenging situation- but we remain confident in the progress achieved by mothers in the past session, and look forward to remaining a constant, holistic support until we meet again in the Fall.

- Cayce, WEP Coordinator

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Youth in Focus: An Interview with Rawan Saqfelheet

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Rawan Saqfelheet is second year student at An-Najah National University studying English Literature and American Studies. Rawan is from Nablus.

Rawan explains that having the opportunity to work alongside Native English Speakers is one of the things that first interested her in volunteering at TYO.

Rawan explains that having the opportunity to work alongside Native English Speakers is one of the things that first interested her in volunteering at TYO.

What made you interested in TYO’s STEP! Program?

I was interested in registering in TYO’s STEP! program because I wanted to practice speaking English with native speakers and gain experience working with children because as I plan to be a teacher upon graduating from An Najah. I was also interested in the STEP! program because I had heard about the opportunities to attend job training seminars. I’d never written a CV or learned how to interview for a job and thought this would be a good opportunity to pick up the needed skills.

Have you volunteered before?

I have very little previous volunteer experience. My friend who was volunteering at TYO before told me about this opportunity and how useful it was for her. I was more excited to continue in the program because I saw that TYO works hard to train youth enrolled in the program for future success in the job market.

What do you hope to do as a career and how do you think this will help you?

I’m planning to pursue my high study in Linguistics right after I graduate and I hope to get a chance study abroad. I would like to then return to Palestine and apply my skills to my home country.

What is the greatest challenge for youth like you in the current labor market?

In general, I think that the biggest challenge for youth in the labor market is the lack of job opportunities. The number of the annual graduates is higher than the number of the job opportunities in Palestine. Also, the universities don’t prepare the students for the job labor in terms of the skills. I hope that voluntary working like what I’m doing at TYO becomes obligatory at the universities so we can develop our skills.

Where do you hope to be 5 years from now?

I can see myself in 5 years with good enough experience and get my MA degree as I’m planning for. Then, I see myself working in an American organization in translation.

-Interview conducted by Ruba Hayfayda

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What to Assess When You’re Assessing

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The Women's Group sends a cheerful goodbye after a successful session

The Women’s Group sends a cheerful goodbye after a successful session

At Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Nablus, classes are held for a diverse group of community members that range in age.  From small children learning English, women learning about computers, and local University students gaining professional skills TYO employs it’s psycho-social approach to ensure evocative learning experiences for all.

In TYO’s Core PM English classes, many children arrived with little confidence in their English skills and lacked the social skills necessary to create a friendly and fun environment. Throughout the past few weeks, every child has not only demonstrated a knack for English but have also grown to care for one another. This can be seen in the way they share their art materials and invite one another to sing for the class. To our pleasant surprise, the kids have all shown a mastery of all the English letters and words we have covered, both in speaking and writing. However, the biggest achievement that has been made in the program is the way their perception of the English language has changed. It went from being seen as a scary and impossible thing to learn to one of their favorite subjects of the day.

Another set of beneficiaries at TYO, the Women’s Group, also began with some challenges. For example, the beginner IT class proved comical. When women waved their mice in the air and clicked haphazardly, it was difficult not to laugh. Despite the comedic aspect of their IT misadventures, the lack of knowledge in computers the women displayed is due to their surroundings; coming from refugee camps, many women do not own computers at home. The 5 week intensive crash course on computers was beneficial to them in numerous ways: teaching them the basics of computer usage as well as building their self-confidence.

At first, lesson planning was a daunting task. How does one teach basics to those who have never touched a computer? After the first class had progressed it became evident that it would be necessary to include the most basic of basics. Those basics included holding a mouse properly, teaching women to correlate the mouse with the on-screen arrow, double clicking, and right clicking. One class in its entirety was spent training women hand-mouse coordination, with a 30 minute segment on double-clicking.

By the end of the 5 week course, however, the Women’s Group ladies were capable of creating their own desktop folders, searching the internet, saving, copy/pasting, and customizing their own MS Word documents. The proficiency displayed in their mouse-usage was akin to the ballet; the on-screen arrow leapt and bounded across pages, double-clicking with grace, copy-pasting with elegance, and highlighting sentences with finesse.

Most importantly, however, they now have the basics necessary to teach themselves independently. The computer has become their oyster.

Similarly, at the start of Professional Competency classes at An-Najah National University sponsored by Abdul-Hameed Shoman Foundation, students lacked confidence in their overall professional capabilities.  Many students responded to pre-assessment questions stating they “Strongly Disagreed” with a majority of the concepts including the ability to write resumes, conduct themselves in interviews, or write professional emails.  Many men and women choose to major in Engineering at An-Najah which was worrisome because according to the American Sociological Review, many women end up leaving the engineering field precisely because they lack the professional confidence men do.  Throughout the session, TYO worked with University students to not only empower them and build confidence, but also to equip them with the tools necessary to succeed in the professional workforce.  It was apparent TYO’s efforts had paid off at the culmination of the session when post-assessments were handed out.  Students who had previously chosen “Strongly Disagree” now had changed their answers to “Agree” or even “Strongly Agree” with many of the professional concepts presented.  Even more telling of TYO’s progress with the students was a post-session discussion. One particular female student who had started the course speaking barely above a whisper raised her hand to tell the instructor “You have given me confidence.  You made us believe in ourselves. This is something I will use today, tomorrow, and forever.”
-TYO Interns, Amanda & Dari, and Fellow, Nada

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For Our Language: Challenging Today to the Prepare for the Future

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Mahmoud teaches Arabic to children in Core AM.

Mahmoud teaches Arabic to children in Core AM.

This has been my second session working at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization as a teacher in the Core Child Program. In addition to teaching TYO’s standard psychosocial curriculum, I also teach Arabic to 4 & 5  year old children enrolled in Core AM. Teaching Arabic has truly become a highlight of my time at TYO, as each day reminds me of my own childhood. I remember in first grade when I was challenged to write letters in classes-  but my parents couldn’t afford to send me to preschool, so I entered grade school completely unprepared. My classmates already knew the letters and could engage with teachers more. In full honesty, I felt like I was the dumbest child in the world. I wish someone explained to me that the reason wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough- but I hadn’t been exposed to experiences like other kids.

These experienced helped shape my interest in becoming a teacher- I knew I could be compassionate to children. Believing that children have the capacity and the ability to learn- and they can memorize things and record experiences in their minds to use when needed- every day, in my class, I challenge myself to teach children new things. I want all of the children at TYO to leave class each day with the understanding that she/he is unique and smart.

The main goal of Arabic class is to teach 4 and 5 year olds Arabic letters. I need to  prepare children mentally and cognitively to learn things, build their communication, and their expression of emotions. At the same time I try to create a supportive environment that helps children feel welcome, ask questions, and make mistakes. My children, who are coming from the most disadvantage areas, face difficult situations that aren’t just financial- they’re coming from parents who don’t encourage education, and don’t understand the importance of early childhood education.

My job doesn’t stop in the classroom. It is also my responsibility to reach out to parents to educate them as to how to better treat their children. The hardest part is when children have learning disabilities or speech problems, and they need treatment, but parents think that will make them spoiled, so they treat them harshly instead. This creates a misunderstanding, and causes the child to hate education.

Fortunately, we have organizations in Nablus who can help treat children with such challenges- a major task of my job is to create a network between parents and family, and this organization. Everything is for the child’s benefit. Children take their homework from inside the class, and are proud to be on the TYO buses- they have a story to tell their parents. Most importantly, they are telling their parents that they are good enough, and that they can learn.

There’s one story I will never forget – I handed out tracing sheets of letters, and one child- a young girl- did it less than 2 minutes. She told me she knew she was capable of writing her name- but she wanted to learn how. I showed her how- and she traced it, and tried to copy it. I was so embarrassed as a teacher, because I put low expectations on the child. I tried to hold her hand to help her trace it, but she refused- saying she could do it herself. I was so proud of her.

-Mahmoud, Core Child Teacher

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Are you listening?

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Children learn 'J' for jellyfish!

Children learn ‘J’ for jellyfish!

Are you listening? Our students certainly are, as they put their hand to their ear and respond “Yes, I’m listening!” at the start of our English classes. In TYO’s Core English program this summer, supported by the Abdul Hamid Shoman Foundation, our children’s confidence in listening, speaking and writing English has visibly improved. Through art, dance, games and immersion in the English language, students have explored the alphabet and new vocabulary.

In our first classes, the difference in abilities between our students were marked. Some students were hesitant in responding to questions, or even to pronounce new words. Others struggled to connect English words to pictures, giving the familiar Arabic words instead. Distinguishing between similar sounds, such as G and J, and matching the correct responses to different questions, was also a challenge for many children.

As the weeks have progressed, the difference in abilities have slowly faded. Students have become familiar with questions such as “How are you?” and “What is your name?” and different responses through songs and corresponding actions. They now happily march into the classroom singing at the tops of their voices when 5 weeks prior, they made only a shy attempt to sing along. They use their newfound voice to express how they feel, and confidently identify the letters that make up each day’s new words.

Our experience shows that children, given the opportunity, can rapidly progress. Each day for the past 5 weeks, students learned a new letter with corresponding words, and have been adding to their English booklet. On the last day of classes, students ‘graduated’, striding up to the front of the room one-by-one to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance, the traditional US graduation ceremony music. They shook our hands and proudly took their English booklets, all remnants of hesitation replaced by a self-confidence that will assist in their continued development. They are listening, and they are learning.

- TYO intern, Yvonne and Fellow, Michelle

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