Two 6-year-old students attend class in Tasanoh Elementary School in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. (photo: Steve Sabella)
At the Baladna Club in Jericho, a member of the girls’ soccer team practices. (photo: Rich Wiles)
The Baladna Club stadium has adopted the slogan “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the title of a famous Rodgers and Hammerstein song. (photo: Rich Wiles)
Kamal Mage and Razan Abu Kissik plan for a debate club meeting in the courtyard of the Latin Patriarchate School in Ramallah. (photo: Rich Wiles)
The Siwar Dabke Troupe trains every Friday and Saturday in Jerusalem and often incorporates a variety of props into performances. (photo: Rich Wiles)
Fayez al Masri is head coach of the girls’ soccer team at Baladna Club. (photo: Rich Wiles)
Nour Joudeh, a member of the debate club at the Friends School in Ramallah, studies in the library. (photo: Rich Wiles)
“I represent Palestine and I feel that I have to represent all girls in Palestine. But I feel equal with boys; we play together, we cooperate with each other,” says Ranea Jaylata, who has played girls’ soccer in Jericho for eight years at the Baladna Club.
At 18 years of age and a senior in high school, Ranea is tall and lean — and blessed with a maturity that belies her youth.
“If I lose, it is nothing,” she says. “The most important thing is I played and competed and participated. I am strong. I have the spirit of competition and teamwork.”
Teamwork is essential for the Baladna Club, where the soccer team is a mix of girls from government schools, the Franciscan-run Terra Sancta School, and schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees. Of the 20 seniors in Ranea’s high school class, one girl is Christian and the rest, Muslim. “We are all together. There are no differences,” says Ranea. “We are one big family.”
Ranea’s dark brown hair is streaked with blond highlights and pulled tightly back in a ponytail, enhancing her high cheekbones. Her tanned skin contrasts starkly with her bright red T-shirt, sprinkled with Arabic writing.
She is one of eight children: six girls and two boys. Ranea’s father is a driver and her mother is a kindergarten assistant. The family lives in a two-story, stone-gated house in Jericho.
Through the Baladna Club, Ranea is developing not only a sense of teamwork, but also a sense of her self. And that is exactly the point.
Yusra Swaity, president of the Baladna Club, wants the girls “to reach the point of believing in themselves — to teach these girls to live their lives, build their character, be a part of a team and become leaders.”
Mrs. Swaity says she strives to make sure the girls respect each other as equals whether they come from refugee camps or the city. “No one is better than the other,” she points out. And Ranea epitomizes Mrs. Swaity’s mission.
“I believe in myself. I believe that I did something,” the teenager says, the rhinestones in her tiny, blue-flowered earrings sparkling in the sun.
The Baladna Club is one of 20 youth centers supported by CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Founded in 1999, the club has 120 members — Christians and Muslims, boys and girls from both public and private schools.
Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, believes support for such programs as Baladna is an innovative effort to make a difference in the lives of Palestinian youths. These programs provide formative opportunities to learn, grow, work together and play together. Life under military occupation can be frustrating and dispiriting for young people; these clubs try to raise spirits, offer a sense of community and purpose, and provide stability and hope. CNEWA also set up the initial training to teach 20 nongovernmental organizations how to write proposals, plan strategically, find resources and, most importantly, think realistically.
“For three years, we provided grants of $35,000 and encouraged them to work together,” says Mr. El-Yousef. “We hope to do a rerun once this gets off the ground.”
To members and organizers, it seems clear that despite its modest beginnings, Baladna is making a difference. The club is a member of the National Football Federation, and under its guidance two separate girls’ teams have traveled to Dubai, Jordan, Qatar and Singapore. But funds are limited to pay coaches and tutors, buy uniforms and arrange transportation, says Mrs. Swaity, and the resources available are less than ideal. The girls practice on a field of sand — not the soft beach sand one envisions, but compacted sand that is almost as hard as cement. If you fall on such a field, you can easily break a bone. Indeed, Mrs. Swaity says that has happened on more than one occasion.
But what seems unbreakable is the team’s spirit. Ranea says she not only loves the game, but dreams of entering professional soccer and representing Palestine internationally.
“I want to go to university and be a famous player and represent Palestine outside of the country,” she says, exuding confidence — and with good reason, as she also excels in her studies. “I would love to have a role in raising the Palestinian flag high up.”
Another student who shares Ranea’s dreams is Kamal Mage. He is a junior at the Latin Patriarchate School in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Kamal, 17, whose black, short-cropped hair is bookended by slight sideburns, is in the debate club of another program supported by CNEWA: AFKAR for Educational and Cultural Development. His rectangular, fashionable glasses magnify the intensity in his dark brown eyes as he describes teenage problems in the West Bank: smoking, alcohol abuse and getting through Israeli military checkpoints.
Growing up, Kamal lived 30 minutes from school in Jifna. “I would leave home at 6:30 a.m. and see the soldiers walking, driving around, threatening us. I was in fifth grade then and I couldn’t come to school for six months,” he says. His experience at AFKAR has helped him better understand the world around him.
Through the debate club, “we’ve learned nothing is perfectly black or white. We learn how to see other views. And we strengthen our opinions by absorbing more information.”
Odeh Zahran, the general director of AFKAR, in his mid-40’s with broad cheeks and a cleft chin, describes the group’s makeup. Six schools participate, public and private. “Each school is represented by six students, Muslims and Christians,” says Mr. Zahran. “They are all Palestinians,” he continues, emphasizing that religious distinctions are not made.
Kamal agrees. “Everyone should be free in his religious life.”
Mr. Zahran claims Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” as his motto. “It fits well with my mission,” he says, of choosing the road less traveled — and that has made all the difference.
“AFKAR’s role is to expose students to critical thinking,” he says. He sees his mission as training future leaders and decision makers. And he believes that these young people can make a difference.
Razan Abu Kissik, 16, is Kamal’s classmate. “In general,” she says, “people in the region have a closed mindset. By debating, we learn to open many minds and spread ideas — to change the way people think.”
Through CNEWA’s support of AFKAR, these students are taught to look at the whole picture; they develop the skills needed to research and deliberate both sides of an argument.
Razan says she has benefited from the debate club by learning to research more, to read news from a variety of sources and to incorporate a cosmopolitan way of thinking into the Palestinian culture.
“We teach patience, independence and self-esteem,” says Mr. Zahran. “Students in 10th and 11th grade go through a learning process rather than a teaching process. They practice freedom of thought and expression, and respect for human rights.”
At The Friends School, also in Ramallah, one third of the students are Christian and the rest, Muslim. “But religion does not set us apart,” says 16-year-old Rahaf Jhawaja. “We are equal and united,” she says.
“I am president of the Student Council,” Rahaf adds, neatly pinning back her dark hair, “and throughout the 10th and 11th grade we try to participate in patriotic events … to show support for our society.”
Being in the debate club can be a transformative experience for some members, such as Nour Judeh, 16, a classmate of Rahaf’s with thick, dark brown curls cascading down to her navy blue V-neck school sweater.
“I am more diplomatic now,” says Nour, “understanding the other side, learning how to defend the position after researching, socializing.
“Cross-examining is a challenge,” she admits, “in not offending others while upholding your point.”
Another girl in the debate club, Raghad Saqfalhait, 16, believes communication skills are a necessary part of one’s life.
“We have the politics of expressing our opinions. We don’t have weapons,” she says.”
“We don’t have anything to use to fight,” says Raghad spreading her arms across the wooden table to emphasize her point. “But, we have our souls. We have our communication skills. We have everything that would be perfect in society.”
Being in the debate club, says Raghad, has taught her to think “outside of the box” and to discover a completely different perspective by seeing the whole picture. It is a picture that is increasingly complicated and challenging — a mosaic that includes war, emigration and separation from loved ones.
Many of the students have family in Jordan, Kuwait, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
“I understand why people emigrate. We lack resources here,” she says, but adds, “we can’t all just move and leave everything behind. Nothing comes easily. We should focus on our problems so that we can improve them.”
Nour hopes to do her part. She wants to study international relations, human rights and journalism.
While Baladna helps kids develop their bodies and the debate clubs at the Latin Patriarchate and Friends schools in Ramallah strengthen their minds, another program supported by CNEWA, the Jerusalemite Youth Cultural Forum, aims to develop artistic talents. It also seeks to protect traditions by instilling pride in their culture. More than 100 high school and university students participate in activities that include drama, dancing and handicrafts, says the director, Mahmoud Bidoun.
Mr. Bidoun describes his mission in exotic terms. He sees it as “wanting to save our culture through embroidery. We save the old embroidery; we add new colors, new designs.”
Iman al Abbasi, 15, has learned the dabke, an Arab folk dance native to the Levant.
“It helps me to express my frustrations with the occupation. The political situation frightens me,” says Iman.
“The checkpoints in Bethlehem and Ramallah are not only annoying but nerve-racking,” she says.
Giving an example, she adds: “If we want to enter the Old City, as Muslims we are not allowed on certain days.”
Shahd al Khateeb, 16, dances the dabke with Iman. A white cotton hijab outlines her round face and pale pink lips. She is a sophomore, and all 40 of her classmates are Muslim. Her teacher is a Catholic.
Shahd learned about the program through a classmate on Facebook.
“I think the program is an amazing idea,” she says. “It helps to represent our culture to other cultures, to deliver our message through dancing, drama and the arts.”
Iman has traveled to Kuwait and played the cello with the band in front of Jordan’s Queen Rania. In Dubai and Turkey, she participated in Taekwondo tournaments.
“We learned how to be one hand, one body, one team, one soul — and I want to carry this for my family and friends and those who come after me,” says Iman.
“I want to save Palestine and the Palestinian traditional heritage,” she says.
“I know more now about my country. It is fun to learn about the history of Palestine.”
She adds that it is also important, as this knowledge can help to preserve their ways and values in the face of an uncertain political future.
“This is our culture and we have to be there to save it and not forget about it,” she says.
Shahd agrees. “I want to teach people about our way of life. And then, the vision about us will change,” she explains, “and others will see that we are a peaceful people — hopeful and ambitious.”
“I want to show all peoples our culture.”
Journalist Diane Handal covers events in the Middle East.