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Intern Journal: Making it through the door

This Sunday, on the first day of class, ten-year-old Ala from El-Ein camp walked into my classroom by herself, her hands tightly gripping a shiny green bag. In front of her were twenty children running and screaming with cups of acetic acid and vinegar in their hands. The hectic scene added a poignant aptness to the child-friendly title of my science course, “Mad Scientists.” She approached hesitantly. Terrified? Sure. But she made it in the door.

We began with games to break the ice in a room of strangers while learning each other’s name. She didn’t give in that easily; withdrawn, she wouldn’t say a word. During the games, the kids stopped throwing the inflatable soccer ball to her because she would never catch it. When they sat in groups of four, she was the oddball out – the fifth in a group of four. But she made it in the door.

I noticed her eyeing the crayons while the other kids were mixing cornstarch and water to make goo, so I gave her paper and crayons to draw with even though she didn’t touch them for another ten minutes. I asked her why she wasn’t drawing, and she spoke her first words to my translator.

“I don’t know how to,” she said. She was one of two kids that day ranging from nine to 11 that told me they didn’t know how to draw. So, we learned together. I held her hand in mine and had her grip the pencils with the same fervor with which she gripped her green bag. She drew lines on the paper and on the desks, slowly leaving her worries about what was right and wrong, what the other kids thought, and even what I thought behind her. She drew flowers, animals, and even clouds – all things she wanted to learn about in her science class. She drew the goo and even other examples of liquids, solids, and gases.

She blew me away. Prior to the arrival of the kids this week, I took part in an intense orientation program, but Ala was my true introduction to Nablus. Here was this incredibly observant child that drew at the same level as her peers even though she had no idea how to hold a crayon. This beautiful girl with a green bag and a black-and-white polka dot headband that she kept losing left her refugee camp for possibly the first time in her life and entered a classroom filled with strangers. She is far braver than I could ever be, and it is a beautiful to watch her from across the room and share a smile or wink with her. I wonder where she goes home to, what her family is like, and where her sister is that was enrolled in my class but never made it through the door. But there’s time for that, space for her to open up if she wants to, and I sincerely hope that she does. I hope her classmates and her family find the same inspiration in her that I found when she walked into my door.

As she was walking out of my door that day, she slipped a piece of paper in my hand.

“Ala,” she wrote.

And it was then that I knew her name. It was then that I was introduced to the future of Nablus. And it blew me away. Ala

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