Intern Journal: The Happy Moments in Between

Living and working in Nablus is filled with its daily challenges and sometimes even a little bit of contained chaos. During Sunday’s meeting, all of the interns were able to reflect on the little moments that gave us joy in the past week. These are the moments that sustain and drive us to do our best.

For me, there were several moments to choose from this week that were both hilarious and enlightening. On Tuesday, my students learned about and made paper fans using popsicle sticks, tape, construction paper, and watercolors. Half and hour into the class, I noticed something odd sitting on one of the tables. It was small, round and yellow…a water balloon? I looked down to see Eiz, probably the tinniest students in my class, meticulously painting with the concentration of Picasso. I came to find out that Eiz had smuggled his water balloon into class and had kept it under his shirt for most of our activity. While it’s unclear what his intentions were, I’m pretty sure they were somewhat innocent. Still, he didn’t get his precious contraband back until after the day was over.

More of these joyous moments happened during class presentations. Prior to having class presentations, I assumed that only a small number of students would volunteer to present their work. Even in an American classroom, 8-10 year old students can be incredibly shy and reserved. And when you add the highly traumatic nature of growing up as a refugee, I was pleasantly surprised that nearly half of my students’ hands shot up when I asked them to come to the front of the classroom. One of my favorite presentations was made by Ibrahim who presented his painting in Arabic and then again in English, just to practice.

Another one of my favorite presentations was made by Ayman, who told the class that his fan was a picture of boys and girls playing nicely together. Considering the fact that, on a good day, I have to fight to get my male and female students to sit at the same table, this felt like a small victory for gender parity.

Finally, there’s Leen, a girl with confidence and wisdom to spare. The oldest child in her family, I found her several times this week helping her fellow students to sound out new words,encouraging shy students to present their work in front of the class, and gently explaining steps in our art projects with the patience and maturity.

The week’s happy moments culminated in Thursday’s sports day. Whether it was the incessant cheering each time the ball was hit during our volleyball game or our insane game of “Snakes in Grass”, I absorbed enough joy for all of the interns combined.

– Cate

Cate is a summer intern at TYO Nablus.

The Super Seven

In between the critical thinking skills, confidence boosting, English proficiency, and creativity, the interns of TYO have one very simple, but indispensable goal – providing a space for kids to be kids.

The Super Seven – interns Alex, Amy, Cate, Mark, Megan, Samin, and Tala – are off and running. Some of us are first time teachers and some are not. Some incorporate the teachings of leading pedagogues and some spend the evenings memorizing Raffi songs. We’ve debated the value of games, activities, and techniques over our friendly neighborhood falafel sandwiches. But, at the end of the day, we just want our kids to enter our classrooms ready to relax, have some fun and, insha’allah, maybe learn a little something, too.

Each intern faces unique challenges. Samin teaches English to 9-11 year olds. Developing a flexible and evolving curricula is definitely a complex task. Furthermore, because English is already taught in formal schooling, Samin is also tasked with developing fun, unique teaching methods in line with the informal, psychosocial approach promoted at TYO. How has she responded? She plans to boost students’ sense of self while cleverly incorporating vocabulary with her “Who am I?” unit this summer. Stay tuned to the TYO blog for updates on Sly Samin’s progress in the classroom.

Alex and I are working to implement TYO’s first Creative Thinking curriculum. Our goals range from encouraging creative problem solving to providing a space for unabated self-expression. “I just want to make them laugh,” Alex tells me, her arms full of school supplies. “If they’re laughing, they’re having fun.”

Although our strategies vary as much as our favorite Shawarma, we all agree on one thing: it’s all about the kids. Stick with us for updates, projects, victories, whimsical mishaps, and lots more as the Super Seven and TYO’s awesome staff and volunteers work to serve the Nablus community. This is gonna be good.

– Amy

Amy is a summer intern at TYO Nablus.

You’re Welcome, Thank You!!

The phrase rains down like a torrent from balconies, rings out of store fronts like a dinner bell and is thrown from car windows with more gusto than a used McDonald’s wrapper: 

“You’re welcome, welcome!!”

It must be the national motto of Palestine or perhaps just the phrase of the week. . . for the umpteenth week in a row.

No matter where we go, or what neighborhood we’re in, no matter whose car we get into, or where we’re going, the greeting is always the same.

“You’re welcome, welcome!!”

If the speaker paid attention in English class, sometimes this greeting is complemented with, “Welcome to Palestine!”  If he has seen a few too many American movies, the phrase can end in any number of grammatically, or contextually, inappropriate ways.

But the “Welcome” is always there.  And, it is always sincere.

At first, it can be a bit off-putting.  When a group of young teenage males come running at you across the street, you do not immediately expect the encounter to culminate in an exchange of smiles and handshakes.  Certainly not if you went to school in Boston, or grew up in New York.

Born and raised in the American Midwest, friendly greetings are, to me, as common as cheese-topped casseroles. Educated and enlightened in New Orleans, sweet homely welcomes have a place in my heart right next to king cake and beignets.

Even so, I’ve traveled enough to expect that any shopkeeper who persistently beckons me over is looking only to make a sale.  When I finally give into such summons, and am inevitably presented with a small sweet, it is honestly startling that instead of peddling me goods he simply insists, “You’re welcome, welcome!!”

There are a lot of misconceptions about this part of the world.  A lot of misgivings, misinterpretations, and missed opportunities for understanding.  Some would probably even go so far as to say that the Middle East is just plain backwards.

Well, as far as greetings and salutations go, yeah, it’s a bit backwards.  I’ve always been accustomed to, “Thank you!,” followed by,  “You’re welcome.”Here in Nablus, you’d better get used to being greeted with, “You’re welcome, welcome!!”

And what can you say, but, “Thank you, thank you!!”

– Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: Do Whatchya Wanna!

There aren’t too many jobs in the world where people ask their boss if they can take on more work, and she readily allows it.  As TYO interns, we are not only allowed to develop projects of our own, but are encouraged to do so!  We’ve come as interns, recent graduates, and young professionals.   We will leave (not too soon, thankfully) as coaches, teachers, artists, and league commissioners.

Having received my work assignment by e-mail before heading to Palestine, I worried about all the blank spaces that pocketed my class schedule.  In order to preempt what I was sure would be long lazy days, I packed a bag full of epic novels and slung my travel guitar over my shoulder.  By the time I left in April, I was sure that I would be not only incredibly well-read but also be ready to take on the open-mic circuit.  Six weeks in and I’ve only barely put a dent in my bookshelf while the guitar has collected more dust here than it does at home!

So where does all that time go?  Everywhere, and anywhere!

Since our first day of orientation, we have been encouraged to take ownership of our classes and our role as interns.  The four of us newbies were each shown an empty classroom, and told to make it our own.  We were given basic class outlines, and instructed to devise curricula.  We were introduced to our volunteers, and encouraged to develop friendships.

What we were never asked to do was take on an extra piano class, start a soccer league, make connections in the community, or finish a mural.  But all of this, and more, has happened.

Too many people go to work each day only to go home again at night.  They do nothing that isn’t explicitly asked of them, contribute comparatively little to their employing organization and are bound by rigid, though often abstract, responsibilities and expectations.

What a treat it is to work here at TYO amongst an incredible group of people, striving to fulfill and incredible mission, with an incredible amount of support on so many levels.

When Leila’s piano class overflowed with students the first few weeks, she decided to add a second class.  I’m not entirely sure if she ever asked permission, or just did it, but either way, it’s happening, and that many more kids are getting that much more exposure to the beautiful world of music education.

Through his Big Brother course, Colin quickly recognized that the local youth are deprived of opportunities for socially-productive physical exercise.  So, he went about writing a proposal for a soccer league.  Volunteer Coordinator Ahmad has helped secure translators for the league, Outreach Coordinator Futoon helped recruit kids, Sports Teacher Haitham has generously loaned us equipment, Intern Coordinator Chelsey has provided all the support in the world and Center Director Humaira signed off on our procurement form for two new soccer balls, without which the league would be a mere mirage!

A few weeks ago, Humaira was overheard musing about how she wished that the mural outside was finished.  Without delay, Chelsey organized an impromptu lesson in mural-making from the art teacher, Rimach.  By the time the weekend rolled around our fingertips were cut to pieces and our skin felt like lizard hide.  However, the long stagnant mural was finally completed and we all got a little bit more Vitamin-D, from working outside, then we have in weeks past!

The cut fingers has made it tricky to play music, but who has time for that when I could be reviewing reports with Ahmad or helping Core Child Teacher Maram write her weekly update in English!  Reading is more tactually possible but there’s always the volunteer who’s anxious for a guitar lesson or Facilities Assistant Um Ibrahim who’s ready to chat, nevermind that she and I share no more than four words in any given language!

But then again, at then end of the day, when lesson plans are finished and my computer is turned off, I’m free to lie on the couch and reflect, watch year old episodes of Treme in lieu of attending Mardi Gras, or just stand outside and wonder whether the beautiful mountainside is real, or merely a Hollywood backdrop.

If you’re ever bored here at TYO you could always ask someone if they need help with anything, or, then again, you could just do whatchya wanna!

Intern Journal: My dentist is going to kill me!

This past Saturday delegates from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) visited TYO. Humaira, TYO’s Center Director, greeted the MEPI representatives with an enormous platter of kenafah, a local pastry made of Nablusi cheese and drenched in a honey-based syrup.  All fine and well for the MEPI visitors who needed to only have a few bites and move on with their morning tour of the TYO Center.  The same can’t be said for us interns who were left to handle the remains!
Throughout the afternoon, a few kilos of leftover kenafah slowly disappeared from our apartment kitchen as bits and pieces were broken off to be shoveled down guiltily but with the utmost pleasure!

And so goes snacking in Palestine, where no occasion, event or meeting begins without a welcoming tea.  Though the flavor differs, sometimes it’s Lipton traditional, sometimes a fancier sage brew, the special ingredient is always the same.  Sugar.

Served in tiny glasses, usually with ornate patters of metallic leafing, the tea is inevitably pipping hot and lip-pursingly sweet!  I have started to wonder whether taking it without sugar is considered back luck, or just a plain social aberration.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the delectable pick me up.  It’s a great way to kick off Arabic lessons, a tour to the local An-Najah University or a meeting at the Yaffa Cultural Center in Balata Refugee Camp.  It only becomes a problem when you do all three things in one day, one after another.  The sugar shakes aren’t easy to, well, shake!

During out last Arabic lesson, Dr. Fawaz insisted we each enjoy a plateful of small pastries with our tea.  Again, the key ingredient being sugar.  Before leaving, we had a pair of candy bars forced on us too.  A single one simply wouldn’t have sufficed as a parting gift!  And for what?  Showing up to a lesson!? Why thank you!

While grocery shopping last week, Walid insisted that Leila and I try a bite of his halawa, a crumbly treat of sesame-paste and, you guessed it, sugar!  After a half an hour of shopping, we had nibbled so many free samples that we felt compelled to purchase a few slices to bring home to the other interns.  Walid conceded that it is best taken with coffee in the morning.  Who am I to argue with his wisdom?

So, for the past week, I’ve been breaking off sweet halawa chunks as a preface to my morning cereal.  Having quickly grown accustomed to the practices of my all-too-gracious hosts, the coffee I pour myself for breakfast has taken on a sweetness that I would normally have spat at had it been served to me back stateside.  But, now, I have nobody to blame except for myself.  I wouldn’t even be able to say how many scoops make it into each cup, because within only four weeks I’ve resorted to simply pouring straight from the bag!

Just yesterday, our facilities manager, Yasser, insisted that we take the rest of a farewell cake upstairs to snack on.  Thankfully, without too much persistence, he assented to our pleas that the last thing we needed was more sweets!

I am continually amazed at the graciousness of the Palestinians.  Their welcoming hospitality is filled with warmth, generosity and sincerity.  Their kindness is unyielding, their sweetness unabating. And, well, I think I might just have figured out the secret.

But, my dentist is going to kill me!

– Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: Week in Review

The weekend weather was intense. We baked during our six hour desert hike through the arid canyons and ridges of Wadi Qelt. We snaked along the elevation of an old aqueduct to our final destination: the 5th century Greek Orthodox monastery of St. George.

Following our incredible Saturday hike, last Sunday felt like the busiest one yet: our usual morning meetings, a trip to Balata refugee camp, our first Arabic lesson and teaching community English.

Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, and one of the most densely populated areas on earth. The narrow labyrinth of alleyways between the concrete block houses, some barely the width of one person, brought to life the living conditions experienced by the camp’s thirty thousand plus residents. At TYO, we aim to provide a safe space for childhood play and informal education – a separate place where kids from the camps and other neighbourhoods can mix and simply be kids.


On Monday in my photography class, I printed out 22 different portraits and had the kids discuss them in groups. Next, in front of a semi-circle of their classmates, they had to present their chosen photo and talk about what made the photo interesting.  Even the shy managed to summon forth comments on colour or perspective after a few coaxing questions. In reward for their efforts, out came the DSLRs they’d been promised the week before.

The last ten minutes of the class was a maelstrom of flashes and camera swaps. Out of the chaos and running around emerged the students’ portraits of each other, the variety of backgrounds and poses that were laudable in the context of a single classroom. As the minutes counted down until the end of class, the local boys’ poses got bigger and bolder and more collaborative. It’s clear to see they enjoy being in front of the camera just as much as being behind it.

See our photo of the week at the Triple Exposure blog!

– Mathilda

Mathilda is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: An Afternoon in Ramallah

Our first week of classes was not only chaos free but without a doubt enjoyable and full of energy. I can only speak for myself, but the kids in my photography class were attentive, and eager to get their hands on the cameras as soon as feasibly possible. They’re looking forward to running wild on next week’s class trip to the Old City.

Outside the classroom, the interns took Friday to visit Ramallah, a nearby city in the West Bank, approximately 14.63 km from Jerusalem – or Al Quds as it is known in Arabic. As a newbie to the Middle East, it was my first time out of Nablus, which provided a refreshing break from living and working exclusively in the same building all week – especially as last weekend was spent indoors brainstorming and organising for the week ahead. However from here on out, the weekends shall be a chance to explore this fascinating region or at the very least areas nearby.

The landscape is breathtaking. As our vehicle sped along the twists and turns, I got more of a sense of the hilly nature of the land. I had arrived under the cover of darkness from the airport two weeks back, but on this drive the sunlight bathed the horizon in gold, barely a cloud in the sky.

Friday is Islam’s holy day, and in the West Bank – along with much of the Middle East – most establishments are closed. People have the day off from work to pray, eat, and spend time with their families. This meant that we saw a version of Ramallah that was only representative of the quietest seventh of the week. A couple of cafes and shops were open here and there, but seeing the quiet sunlit streets lined with shut shops, reminded me of sleepy little French towns on Sundays.

After a quick visit to Yasser Arafat’s memorial we meandered into town and sampled the delicious local shawarma. Then, we walked and walked, the length and breadth of the town, eventually culminating in an ever-decreasing spiral to end up back where we started on Main Street.  It was a pleasure to see the beautiful architecture, a maze of weathered limestone houses, gardens and new half-finished constructions. A man walking his daughter back home in a stroller asked us if we were lost, telling us not much happens on Fridays. Another boy ran out from an al fresco family lunch to insist we all try some of their sfiha (small Levantine breads topped with minced meat and spices) then kindly inviting us to join their table. But not wanting to intrude and already touched by such open generosity from a stranger, we thanked him and were on our way.

As usual, the few people we encountered made us feel incredibly welcome. Ramallah is home to more ‘internationals’ than Nablus so no doubt people have more chance to practice their English there. Nevertheless, we were impressed with the level of English across the board in Ramallah. When someone can speak English in addition to their mother tongue, they immediately widen their potential for human interaction, increase their audience and gain access to a plethora of information on everything imaginable — if they can get online too. I feel that if someone has a story to tell, then maybe it should be heard.

Through our English classes here at TYO (both for children and the wider community) people can access and communicate with a world outside of the Middle East. Each new Arabic phrase we are taught and every step we take here as guests in Palestinian society is the flip side of the same inter-cultural dialogue, which we hope will benefit all of us. Once again I can only speak for myself, but every day I learn something new.

– Mathilda

Mathilda is an intern at TYO Nablus.