For children growing up in Palestine, every day holds the risk that simmering tension will erupt into violence. And with many of their fundamental rights restricted by the decades-long military occupation, Palestinian teenagers experience feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness.

Although there is limited verifiable information, we know that some children are recruited by Palestinian armed groups, particularly in Gaza. However, many also mobilise and organise themselves in violent or non-violent protests to resist the occupation and protect their families and communities.

At the end of 2015, violence escalated once again, with children in the West Bank especially affected. Since then, large numbers of teenagers, some as young as 12, participate in protests and clashes with Israeli soldiers or settlers. This has put them at heightened risk of death, injury, detention and abuse.

Our project with Shoruq engages directly with these vulnerable children living in refugee camps in the West Bank. We aim to empower them to voice their opinions about the conflict, but in a manner which does not jeopardise their safety. In April, we visited Palestine and witnessed how engaging these children in cultural, artistic and solidarity activities has the power to transform them into valued and respected members of their communities.

   

Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem (West Bank), has a resilient and connected community, but faces problems like overcrowding, unemployment and a shortage of economic opportunities for young people. Incursions by Israeli security forces for house searches and arrests by the Israeli army, often in the middle of the night, are a common occurrence.

   

In Dheisheh camp, there are several murals of children who have been killed in clashes with the Israeli army. They are seen by some as heroes to emulate. Clashes frequently erupt after Friday prayers. Children throw stones at the soldiers, who often use live ammunition. Dozens of Palestinian children had been killed in this manner in the months before our visit in April 2016.

   

Concerned about the increasing risk of children participating in violent clashes, we started a project with Shoruq to support at-risk refugee children in articulating their rights in a safe and empowering manner. In this photo, children are attending a child rights training on how to express themselves safely, and have their opinions and concerns heard by adults.

   

After being trained on their rights, children were encouraged to think about how they wanted to express their feelings and opinions on their situation – both within their community and internationally. They chose to make vines or photo stories, record hip hop songs, and put together a traditional ‘Dabke’ dance show. Shoruq then provided children with trainings on the needed technical skills, like filmmaking, video editing and recording and dance and music classes.

   

In April, we travelled to Dheisheh to meet with the children and hear how the project had impacted them. Some children told us that they used to go to clashes on Fridays, but now are busy with the project and have found alternative ways to express themselves. One boy told us: “This project opened my eyes to other ways that I can express my opinion on the current violence. I learned how to explain the problems that are facing our society in more creative ways, such as writing.”

   

At the end of the project, in April 2016, the children organised a final performance for their friends, family and community. Although Shoruq staff and volunteers provided guidance and training, the performance was entirely designed, led and delivered by the children. One girl told us: “Everything that we have done comes from us and that makes it more beautiful.”

   

Safa is one of the children who participated in this project. She is 13 and lives in Dheisheh with her parents and four siblings. She told us how bad the situation is in the camp, especially when children get shot. For the project, she worked on a photo story about the Wall and a vine on children’s right to have their opinions heard. She said it helped her understand her rights and communicate better with adults. Having never been beyond the Wall, she dreams of seeing what is there and seeing where her family used to live before 1948. 

   

On the day of the performance, the auditorium was filled with friends and family of the children. It was inspiring to see the confidence these children had to share their projects and voice their opinions. Here, the children are explaining their projects to the audience. 

   

Dabke is a traditional Palestinian line dance. Some of the children had done their projects on the significance of traditional Palestinian clothes and folklore. This is very important and valuable to them as it is a symbol of their identity and homeland.

   

Several of the children received training in photography and storytelling and created compelling photo features. They told stories of life-long friendship, life in the camp, getting injured in clashes with soldiers and the displacement of their grandparents. One boy chose the topic of violence because “it is a problem we are all suffering from. Not just Palestinians, but the whole world. We want to deliver a message that we should stop this violence.”

   

Nearly 200 friends, family and community members attended the final performance and photo exhibition. Here, they are looking at the children’s photo features. Many parents told us that their children had grown in confidence and were more communicative as a result of the project.

   

Children told us how they had benefited from the project. One boy said he used to think violent protest was “the only way that I can do something”. A girl said: “For us Palestinians, our tools are limited. Many people think that throwing stones is the only way to express ourselves”. But now they are engaged in safer artistic and solidarity activities.

We must harness the potential of children affected by conflict. Even when they are victims, they can and should contribute significantly to creating strong and empowered societies. With your help, we can continue this project and reach more refugee children in the Middle East.

Please donate to our work.

   

Photos © Shoruq and Child Soldiers International