The Magic School Bus – Palestinian Style

I’ve been here for a little over two weeks, I’ve posted some reflections,  and I’ve put up some pictures, but you may be wondering just what I’m up to over here. What kind of ‘work’ am I doing in this community? What does ‘helping with summer programs’ mean?

We came here to do to things:

1. Help with the activities of the local community center.
2. Run our own week-long summer camp program in three refugee camps.

Our summer camp program is for older kids, who are still in school, so right now, we’re focusing on the first one. Which right now, means helping them run a two week long summer camp for younger kids. There are about 25 kids, ages 4-12, and except for one who has lived in the States, none of them speak any English.

So for now, here’s a day in the life of a volunteer.

Every morning, at 9:00 AM, the four of us volunteers show up at the center, bright and happy and energetic and excited to meet the day (of course we never, NEVER show up bleary eyed and grumpy), and we meet the kids. Usually, by the time we arrive, they’re already tearing around the room at full speed, so we like to begin with exercises. We take them outside and we stretch, we do jumping jacks, and we play a great game where I play the guitar, they dance, and every time I stop, they have to stop. It’s like musical chairs, minus the chairs. And you know what? It never get’s old.

After that, we head inside for some activities that are fun and educational. Well, we try for both at least. We usually do different activities every day, repeating the ones that go well, and a few of the local volunteers at the center help us out. Some activities, like learning origami, have been a little bit over the heads of the five year olds. Some, like reading a story book about Afghan refugees, have inspired good discussion and helped the kids to talk about issues that they face in their own lives. We’ve done arts and crafts, singing (my personal favorite), and acting workshops.

Some activities, like playing duck-duck goose, have been a lot more about laughing than about learning hard skills. But who’s to say that both aren’t important?

Every day we have a quick break when we volunteers go buy Felafels, and the kids take their money and buy chips, soda, and ice cream from the store. I worry a bit about these kids’ health. They don’t eat particularly balanced meals, and they certainly don’t take care of their teeth. It’s really sad to see, but a couple of kids’ baby teeth are literally rotting out of their mouths. Yes, we are planning a dental health workshop. While fresh fruits and vegetables are available throughout the camp, junk food is even more plentiful. It’s sad to see that here, it’s cheaper to buy a can of soda than a bottle of water. (The bad habits have been rubbing off on me too; I’ve been averaging 2-3 chocolate wafer bars a day.)

While most families eat more balanced meals at home, the food that’s available at restaurants is also not very health-friendly. There are three restaurants in the camp that make felafels (fried in oil), one that makes kebabs (covered in grease), and one more expensive place that sells fried chicken and fries.

In addition to the poor diet and the bad health practices, smoking is a little out of hand too. Around the camp, a lot of kids start smoking around 12-14 years old. An eight year old asked me if I smoke, and I responded by telling him it’s bad for him. But why, he wanted to know, do his uncles each smoke a pack a day?

Back at the center, we resume our activities in the afternoon, usually doing arts and crafts or relay races or story time until 1:00 PM, when the kids go home. After that, we begin planning activities for the next day.

We then get much needed rest, socialize with people in the center of the camp, and prepare for our nightly English classes. I and another volunteer are teaching c a class of 8 men in their late twenties who are just beginning to learn English. These classes have been my favorite part of my work here, and they have been the most visibly productive and rewarding. I’ll write a post about this later.

At the end of the day, we go back to our house, socialize with whoever is in the mood to come over and smoke, and finalize our preparations for the next day.

Sometimes, when all the kids are yelling and running around, the work can feel like glorified babysitting. Actually, scratch the ‘glorified’. Sometimes it just feels like we’re watching people’s kids for free. If that’s the case, why can’t any of the hundreds of young unemployed men in the camp do the same thing? This is a big question I ask myself. After all, I paid good money for a plane ticket, and I sacrificed two months of potential work to do this. Is it worth it?

There are two ways that I’ve been working all of this out in my head. First, I believe that our work is more than just babysitting. While we might not be teaching hard skills as efficiently as a school, there are other important things to teach. We’re working hard to teach the kids basic social skills like listening to each other, showing respect, settling fights without hitting, following directions, and paying attention. By introducing them to new things, like origami, we’re helping them learn to be open to new and unfamiliar things. Of course, all of these things take time, but I think that every little bit helps. Even in the short time that we’ve been with these kids, I’ve seen a big reduction in the number of times each day the boys are violent with each other. A lot of the girls who wouldn’t talk the first day have come out of their shells and begun to speak out loudly (quite loudly), and altogether, I think the kids have grown a lot in their interactions with one another.

Of course, there’s still the question of why I had to come from the U.S. to do all this. Well, one reason is because it shows the kids that someone cares about them. While the West Bank is isolated to begin with, the refugee camps here are even more isolated. Even other Palestinians in the West Bank are prejudiced against people in the camps, and view them as dangerous ghettos filled with lazy people and thieves. The people here in the camp know that they are near the bottom of the global food chain. It’s an important symbolic action then, when people come from far away to care about the community. No, it’s not about trying to be Angelina Jolie and wanting to take pictures with cute kids for Facebook. It’s about living here in the camp, among the people, and trying to live alongside them in a community. Sitting in the same cafes, dodging the same cars in the same unpaved streets, and dealing with the same power outages and water shortages as everyone else. For kids and adults, it lets them know that we care what they’re going through, and we care about their situation. And I think that that’s important.

There’s three ways that people here get to know Americans. The first way is through Israel. When people here see the uniformed soldiers who humiliate them at checkpoints and kill their sons, they think of America footing Israel’s expense bill. I’ve been told more than once that America has 52 states, with Israel being the last one. (I’m not sure what they think is our 51st.) When people here see guns, bombs, and armored cars, they see America. The second way that people see America is on T.V. And most of that programming, for some absurd reason, is the World Wrestling Entertainment. The most well known American figure here in the camp, and throughout Palestine, is pro-wrestler John Cena. The third way that people in the camp know America is by the Americans who have been here. And, from the conversations that I’ve heard, the real presence of concerned Americans here has helped (most) people to make the distinction between the American people and the American government. I don’t mean to inflate my role as a cultural ambassador, but I think that every little interaction helps.

Finally, I am doing some things that people here can’t do, such as teach English, and later on when we do our own programming, I’ll be a lot more useful. We’ll be doing a youth leadership program and other workshops for older kids, and I expect that then I’ll be able to share some of the skills that I’ve acquired through my education. We shall see.


In my off time, I’ve been taking some time to see the surroundings. Two days ago, I went to the famous Apricot Festival in the neighboring town of Jiffna. What I thought would be a small town party turned out to be a massive three day affair featuring guest musicians, arts and crafts from around the West Bank, and a special visit by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The word for apricots in Arabic is “mishmish”. I think that my favorite part of the festival was hearing crowds of people talking and dignitaries giving formal speeches all about the “mishmish”. It’s a fantastic word. Say it aloud and see for yourself.

Yesterday, a few of us took a day trip to Jerusalem. We spent a day wandering around the Old City and hit up the top rated holy sites / tourist attractions, including the Western Wall, the base of the Temple Mount (we couldn’t go up since it was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer), the Church of the Holy Sepluchre (built on the sites where Jesus’ passion was played out), and the Mount of Olives. We visited a church on the Mount of Olives, and while we were sitting in a pew looking around, we fell asleep. (For anyone who doesn’t get the Biblical irony of this, look up Matthew 26:36-44.)

Jerusalem is an interesting place. It’s old. It’s really sacred to a lot of people. It’s the focal point of a lot of prayers, and the focal point of a lot of hatred. Jerusalem is a very interesting place. I can’t wait to get back.

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2 Responses to The Magic School Bus – Palestinian Style

  1. Juhi says:

    Interaction helps for people to get over media created stereotypes both ways. I think it is wonderful that you are there and working with children. Great job Mark!

  2. Amelia says:

    Great post! I really appreciate your outline of the day, I’m always curious what people ACTUALLY do. (Besides go to the water cooler. See: Office Space) It sounds like you’re doing some pretty awesome stuff, and while I understand it can feel mundane and non-monumental, I think you’re right–it’s having more of an impact than you know. I’m praying for you, buddy! Mishmish!

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