A Zeitoon Afternoon

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of an extended visit with the Zeitoon family.   Zeitoon women make up six out of the eight students in my lower level English class here at TYO.  Last term, they rarely came to class, and when they did all six would stroll in at the same time (usually late), babies in tow, laughing raucously, never-ever remembering all 26 letters of the alphabet.  Whenever I heard their booming voices echoing in the hallway outside of my classroom, I was always filled with simultaneous dread and pleasure.

The Zeitoon family is from Balata refugee camp, the largest and most crowded refugee camp in the West Bank.  People say the problems that pervade the camps in the West Bank are worse in Balata because it is smaller and more crowded – more 25,000 people live together on one square kilometer.  Balata is where the first events of the 1987 Intifada took place, and it is also where the Second Intifada turned into an armed uprising.  Balata also happens to be the home of about fifty Zeitoons.

So last Sunday afternoon, I made my way over to Balata camp to spend time with Mona, Sameera, Samar, Fawziyya, Nisreen, and Salam, my Zeitoon mothers.  I had a meeting at TYO at 5:00, and I assumed that two and a half hours of lunch and socializing in a language that I cannot speak fluently would be more than enough time.  Of course, I should have known better.

After arriving at Mona’s house and sitting for an hour with the twenty children and grandchildren that filled the tiny sitting room, Mona explained to me that we were going on a special trip to a “nadi” or club.  The club, she explained, is a members-only club for the rich, influential families of Nablus.  “Are you members?” I asked, confused and somewhat incredulous.  Was I missing something? “No, we are not members,” Mona explained.  “You see, the club is closed on Sundays.  But my mom and dad live at the club.  My dad is the security guard.  He has the key.”

Every Sunday for the past fifteen years, the whole Zeitoon clan has taken over the fields and patios of this exclusive country club, leaving the cramped spaces and cloying smells of Balata refugee camp behind.  As Mona explained to me, “everyone needs a change of air every now and then.”  Of course, Mona is  right, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at the good fortune of this family that in so many other respects seems very unfortunate.  Dispossessed of land and home, subjected to life in a dangerous and impoverished refugee camp, the Zeitoons get to spend their Sunday afternoons sitting among the rose bushes of a swanky Nabulsi country club.

So what I thought would be a two and a half hour lunch with the Zeitoon ladies turned into an eight hour extravaganza with Zeitoon uncles, aunts, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and cousins.  As I watched the multitude of Zeitoon children running around, riding bicycles, bouncing balls, and swinging on swings, I happily surrendered to the reality that I would not be able to leave the club anytime soon.  There were no cars in sight, and the only way home was by way of a Zeitoon cousin who drives a taxi. And anyway, I didn’t want to cut short the one day of the week when the Zeitoons get to enjoy themselves outside.

Together, the Zeitoons and I ate six huge trays of home-made oozi topped with sour goats milk yogurt.  We drank cup after cup of sweetened tea, black coffee, and various soft drinks.  The men of the family sat on one side of the empty parking lot under a loquat tree  smoking argileh.  The ladies sat on the other side of the parking lot with the babies, toddlers, teenagers, and other youth of the Zeitoon clan.  The division of labor in the family was clear: the ladies took care of everything.  They prepared the trays of food, set up the tables, fed the army of children, cleaned the tables, and organized whatever needed to be organized.  Meanwhile, the men sat, smoked, and ate.

Finally, at 9:30 at night, when the mosquitoes and the cold-night air no longer made sitting outside comfortable, the family started to consider heading back to the camp.  They packed me into the first shuttle back to the city, my hands overflowing with fresh loquats and a new basil plant.  I went to bed that night stuffed to the gills and smiling, feeling lucky that I got to share in a little bit of this crazy family’s fun.


Mary is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.


Intern Journal: Things that Grow

In the last class before a week-long break my students set up beans for sprouting. All it takes is a wet cotton ball, some beans, and a small dish or Dixie cup. We set them near a window, and I added a little water throughout the break. By the time the kids returned, all of their beans had roots and a few green leaves were even poking through. So we transferred the sprouts from the small cups to larger plastic containers, which they decorated with crayons and constructed paper and filled with soil.

When I checked on the sprouts I was delighted to see that one of the plants growing the fastest belongs to Mohammed, an 8-year-old whose motor skills and conceptual skills have been visibly “behind” the others in most of our activities. By speaking with Suhad, our psychosocial specialist, I had learned that Mohammed is the middle child between two brothers. In most Palestinian families, the oldest boy has a close relationship with the father. Additionally, in Mohammed’s family, the youngest boy has a heart problem, causing his mother to be away at a hospital in Jerusalem for long periods of time. Mohammed has been left to try to comprehend the world on his own since the age of three. Combined with the raids and violence that all of my students have seen, it’s no wonder Mohammed’s development has been stunted.

But it isn’t just Mohammed’s plant that is growing. In many classes I find him looking to the paper of the person next to him to copy their drawing. Sometimes his older brother, Sa’ed, simply does the work for him, particularly when it involves using scissors. On Thursday Mohammed came to class without Sa’ed, who was on an excursion with their father. When we began our creating flowers from recycled plastic bags, Mohammed sat focused on the materials in front of him. I held the rolled-up plastic bag while he wrapped a rubber band around it and then slowly crossed it to wrap it around again. “Yes, Mohammed, mumtaz!” I cried when he completed the task perfectly. I offered him the lone pair of large scissors we had and again held the plastic while he cut. Then he fluffed out the plastic to form the petals. He looked up at me expectantly, displaying his creation. “Helwa kiteer!” I exclaimed, meaning extremely beautiful, and referring to both the flower and the child. I could have done a dance to those words.


Kara is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

Kalimatna: The Palestinian Disabled Union

I walked in from the noise and heat of the street to the shaded and cool office not a minute too soon, as I’d speed-walked from TYO to the city center in record time.  I was immediately greeted by a lovely girl sitting at the front desk and the director of the organization who was seated across the desk.  We had met a few days beforehand and he warmly extended a hand to me in welcome.

Haya was already there and taking photos of two men who were flipping through profiles of the Union’s members, looking for candidates for the Paralympics that were going to be held shortly.  As we chatted, I was brought a cup of tea.  Palestinian hospitality is really not to be beat.

The Palestinian Disabled Union, snug between two large buildings, is located with just an unassuming sign designating its presence. I’d passed it dozens of times before on minibuses from the bus station without noticing it.  The office is small but welcoming and intentionally so—one of the persons with whom we spoke said that she could only be herself and feel comfortable inside of the glass sliding door of the Union.  It serves its function as a place for advocacy for disabled persons’ rights, for organizing events and classes for disabled persons, but also crucially for a place for disabled Palestinians to gather in comfort and camaraderie.

All of this I was able to gather by speaking with the current director of the Union, watching a film produced by the Union and speaking with two of its members.  Both the director and the film projected a positive image of their work there, focusing on the empowerment of disabled persons in Palestine and, having worked with the mentally handicapped in Peru, I was familiar with and appreciative of this tone.  The film was a montage of images of capability—the director driving his car, a young blind girl singing the short film’s song, pictures of sports events featuring those in wheelchairs.  The director elaborated on the union’s activities in securing classes for its members at the local university that met their needs, organizing other types of classes specially for its members, organizing sports events and much more.  After all of this, I was left with a very positive impression of the state of Palestinians with disabilities.   It seemed to me that there was work to be done, but that progress was being made.

This impression was not entirely negated by my speaking with two of the members, but I began to come to a fuller understanding of the life of those who are disabled in Palestine.  Both of our interviewees seemed to really feel their position as disabled persons in relation to the greater Palestinian society as being, essentially, a handicap.  Having a physical disability in Palestine, they explained, affects your job prospects, your prospects at starting a family, even your ability to walk down the street comfortably.  I have no illusions about how difficult it is to be handicapped in America and I’m sure that many of the concerns would be similar even across such a geographical, cultural and linguistic divide.  I did begin to think , however, about how many places in Nablus were handicapped accessible.  Of course this could just be a question of means rather than a question of intention, but what my two interviewees spoke of led me to believe that it was not just a means-based issue, it was an issue of ignorance of the subject.

Regardless, my two interviewees were happy to be able to be in a place like the Disabled Union.  A place where they were accepted, understood and considered.  Through the Disabled Union they’d each found employment and one had joined a basketball team for the wheelchair-bound.  If each did not exactly hold an optimistic view of their future or place in life, they seemed to do what Palestinians have become adept at—adapting to their situation while striving to improve it.


Bieta is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

Business of Peace in the Middle East

TYO Founder and President, Hani Masri, headlined a conference at Harvard Business School (HBS) last Friday, April 9, along with Sir Ronald Cohen, Chairman of the Portland Trust. The conference was the second annual event on this topic, organized by HBS students and sponsored by Harvard MENA and the HBS Jewish Students Association.

HBS organizers were interested to brainstorm and publicize ways that the private sector can promote stability and peace in Israel and Palestine. Over 100 audience members represented the Harvard community (HBS and the university’s other graduate schools, including the Kennedy School of Government and the Graduate School of Education) as well as Portland Trust and TYO partners, including Ron Bruder, founder and CEO of the Education for Employment Foundation.

The discussion was varied and productive, ranging from the political climate in the region to a proposed web platform to facilitate trade between Israel and the West Bank. Participants focused primarily on innovative and effective measures to work toward a better life for those living in this troubled region, including education, trade and paying particular attention to women’s role in economic development. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently wrote:

When women are free to develop their talents and contribute fully to their societies, everyone benefits.

Inasmuch, we showcased TYO’s efforts to engage women as business leaders and build their capacity to do so.

We look forward to welcoming participants in the conference and others as mentors, donors and partners in our efforts to empower Palestinians in business – particularly the women we work with through our collaboration with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women: Fostering Women Entrepreneurs in Nablus. Meet FWEN participants Hadeel and Nehaya in their videos at these links.

Want to help? Get in touch with Project Manager Fatima Irshaid. Or donate now through Global Giving.

Shaking Things Up

One of the moments I enjoyed most over the past five weeks happened when my class took painted toilet paper rolls— “telescopes”—outside to the TYO balcony. The children peered out across their city and excitedly called out what they saw: buildings, mosques, cars, trees, birds, laundry, and more. Back inside, they drew some of those sights to create a Nablus scene for our classroom wall.

With the goal of stimulating further observations of their world, I planned this Tuesday’s class around the theme of sound. We started with a rhythm game involving clapping, stomping, and snapping. Then we spent two minutes listening to the sounds we could hear from our classroom and writing them down. Keeping the kids quiet and focused on their own paper during this activity was challenging. In general, conveying the idea that there is not one right answer has proven difficult in class since the education system in Palestine focuses a lot on memorization.

Nevertheless, when we compiled a group list on the board, all of the kids were eager to be called on. And like the telescope activity, they put more effort into their subsequent drawings of what they heard than in activities when they are drawing less concrete things.

We spent the rest of class making musical instruments. When the children asked whether they could take their project home with them, I replied, “Of course!” At the end of the of the day when they walked out of TYO to the rhythm of shaking popcorn kernels, I noted to a volunteer that the bus drivers might be annoyed with me; However, I was pleased to hear the kids making music. I hope that those sounds are a first step toward raising their voices.

How To: Plastic plate shakers

Materials: plastic/paper plates, magazines, crepe paper, popcorn kernels (or seeds , rice, or beans), glue, scissors, stapler

Step 1: Cut out pictures from magazines. Glue images to the bottoms of two plates. These plates will be the outside of your instrument.

Step 2: Cut strips of crepe paper to make short streamers.

Step 3: Turn one plate facing up (as if you were going to eat from it.) Pour some popcorn kernels onto plate.

Step 4: Place streamers around the edge of plate so that most of the tail is not on the plate.

Step 5: Place second plate on top, decoration side up. Staple plates together, making sure to staple over the streamers.

Step 6: Shake-shake-shake!!


Kara is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

Kalimatna: Arabic to Arabic Translation

I started studying Arabic during my sophomore year of college six years ago.  Arabic is a very difficult language even for the most gifted language-learner, and given the fact that I am not a gifted language-learner, I think I’ve come a long way.  I spent last year in Jordan reading and studying a variety of classical Arabic texts, which ranged from pre-Islamic poetry to Quranic exegesis.  Sounds pretty impressive, right?

Given the high level of my reading abilities, you might assume that I can speak and understand Arabic with equal facility.  Unfortunately for me (and for the vast majority of Arabic students) that is not the case.  In fact, whenever I open my mouth here in Nablus, I am barely able to utter a sentence without someone breaking into laughter.  “What is so funny?” I have demanded numerous times.  “You sound like a child,” or “you sound like a cartoon character” is often the response I get.  The secret about Arabic (that very few people tell you when you start the language) is that in order to be able to both read and actually communicate with people, you have to learn what are essentially two different languages: fusha (classical Arabic) and amiyya (the spoken dialect).

Unfortunately for me and for other American students of Arabic, fusha is pretty much the only language taught in universities in the U.S.  So when we come to the Arabic speaking world bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and eager to practice our Arabic, we find that no one can understand us, we can’t understand anyone, or that we just sound ridiculous (like the characters in the cartoon programs or like someone from the Middle Ages).  Needless to say, this can be endlessly discouraging. That’s why I’ve decided that the ability to laugh at oneself is the most important attribute for any student of Arabic.  Otherwise, you are doomed for severe depression for the rest of your life.

During my interviews for the Kalimatna Initiative these past few weeks, I’ve tried to keep in mind this “most important attribute.”  It helps me feel not too bad when I ask my questions in carefully prepared Arabic and the interviewee stares at me blankly, blinks for a few seconds, and then turns to Hassan (my Palestinian partner) who then “translates” what I said from Arabic-to-Arabic.  “That’s exactly what I said!” I often squeal after he has re-posed my question.  He smiles back at me with laughter in his eyes.  I glare at him for a second and then sigh, secretly nursing my hurt pride.  At least he could understand me.


Mary is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.