TYO launches a new literacy project in partnership with MEPI

Political strife and restricted movement have led to poverty, isolation and trauma in Nablus, particularly for the city’s 50,000 refugees and the 60% of residents under 25. The youngest segment of the population is most affected by this lasting reality. Attending schools that are understaffed and overenrolled, many refugee children in Nablus have slipped through the cracks. Today few of these children are able to read and write, resulting in increased drop-out levels and bleak outlook for the next generation’s productivity and life satisfaction. Gone unaddressed this problem will have lasting social, political and economic ramifications; Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO) in partnership with the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is proud to launch a new literacy project which seeks to close this gap now. Declining literacy is among the greatest problems facing the Nablus community.

In late September 2010, the MEPI Local Grants Program at the United States Consulate General in Jerusalem awarded TYO a grant for its “Enriching our Community: Learning to Serve, Serving to Read” program. This program will use Scholastic’s My Arabic Library to teach nearly 400 children in Nablus how to read.

The project will engage thirty university students, ten mothers and several TYO staff members in a workshop series that will promote values of volunteerism and civic engagement. Through these workshops, youth and women will receive the necessary training to teach children (ages 6-8) how to read. Following the workshop series, these trained volunteers are committed to serving in TYO’s Core Program, infusing literacy-enhancing activities into TYO’s art, sports, health and technology classes for 160 at-risk refugee children.

After the spring session, these experienced volunteers will spend the early summer training with an additional fifteen volunteers for TYO’s summer program, during which they will teach 220 at-risk children (ages 6 -12) how to read.

The outcome of the TYO-MEPI collaboration will be a fully trained and committed volunteer corps and almost 400 children in Nablus’ refugee camps and other marginalized areas who can read!

Dancing Bollywood in Nablus

When I told my students that next week I would be teaching them a Bollywood dance, a squeal of excitement went through the room—from the girls, but also surprisingly from my college-age volunteers!  Last Thursday, I  taught a dance to the song “Kajra re” from the Bollywood hit Bunty aur Babli.

At the front of the class, I suddenly realized I had never taught a dance before!  I hoped that I would be able to explain what I was doing, given that I was giving instructions through a translator.  I demonstrated the dance to my students, and they were obviously excited.  But first, I told them about the basics:  “Did I look sad, or happy?  Have you ever seen a Bollywood actress look sad while she was dancing?”  “NO!” they said emphatically.  “Right, so the most important thing to remember is to smile!  Even if you make a mistake, make it with a smile on your face and no one will notice,” I reassured them.  Then I asked, “Did I look scared, or did I look brave?”  They unanimously agreed that I looked brave and confident dancing.  I stressed that Bollywood dancers are not shy, and that they should move with confidence, even if they are unsure of what they are doing.  Finally, I asked, “What is the most important part of your body in Bollywood dancing?  Your hips!”  A whole lot of hip-shaking commenced, practicing for what was to come.

With the basics down, I started teaching them the steps.  I broke down moves into smaller pieces—first, just the arms, then adding the legs.  We learned short sections, put them together with other sections, practiced without the music and then added the music, and utilized many other strategies for learning dance.  I quickly found that it is much easier to count beats in English than in Arabic—the multi-syllabled Arabic numbers (“wahad, ithnen, thalatha!”) are a mouthful and even my students chose to count in English.

Through sheer determination, we got through the entire minute and a half of choreography, and had enough time at the end of class to do the dance together as a group several times with the music.  After I heard the bell ring and dismissed class, there was a hum of excitement and activity in the room that seemed to defy the Thursday afternoon exhaustion that usually sets in.  My students wanted to know where they could find the “Kajra re” song, and my volunteers, normally in a hurry to get home before dark, stayed late to take photos and tell me how much they enjoyed learning the dance.  It was a great way to finish the course—with only one week left, we have built the level of trust, comfort, and self-confidence needed to jump into a hip-shaking Bollywood routine and for everyone in the room to commit to learning it 100%.  As I put the chairs and tables back after everyone left, I thought about how it would have been nearly impossible to get my students to dance in front of each other in one of our first class sessions—and today they eagerly undertook it with such a lack of self-consciousness that it made me proud to see how far we have come.  And now that I have seen how much Nabulsis love Bollywood, I can’t help but wonder if maybe we should have a full-term Bollywood dance course for TYO youth!  Hmm…

– Ashwini

Ashwini is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Introductions: Summer Interns!

Andrea, Rick, Max and Hannah are TYO's summer interns!

TYO is pleased to introduce the latest members of its Nablus team. Welcome, Summer Interns: Hannah, Andrea, Max and Rick! They’ve jumped into the Summer 2010 Session and have already made quite a splash here at the TYO Center in Nablus. Please check this blog in the coming days for updates on their progress and reflections on their experiences in Nablus. For now, here is a bit about our new team members!

Hannah is a sophomore at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota majoring in International Studies and Religious Studies. She was born in New York and grew up in Connecticut. This summer, she is teaching Women’s English, Summer Camp activities and Arts and Crafts classes to the women and children.

Rick holds a MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins (SAIS), specializing in Conflict Management and International Law and Organizations and a BA in Religious Studies and Classics from Macalester College. Rick was born and raised in East Los Angeles. This summer, he is teaching Video and Music Video Production and Drama to children.

Max is a junior at Dickinson College majoring in Middle East Studies. He has lived most of his life around Philly. This summer, he is teaching several English courses and an Art and Communications course to adults and children.

Andrea is two courses shy of an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and Education Development at George Washington University. She also holds a BA from Dartmouth University in Linguistics. She grew up in Annapolis, Maryland. This summer, she is teaching English and Aerobics to the wonderful women of Nablus.

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.