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    The Children of Gaza
    A World of Passion

    The idea behind the Qattan Centre for the Child was to provide a cultural oasis for Palestinian children in the city of Gaza and the surrounding areas, through a library that would be the largest of its kind in Palestine, specialising in the cultural needs of children up to the age of fifteen, while also serving their families and professionals who work with children.

    The Qattan Centre fort he Child has a programme for reaching out to children in marginalised areas, computer labs and rooms for various forms of artistic expression, such as music, painting and drawing, sculpture, acting and the performance arts. The centre also has a special programme to promote culture within the family and to help families play their role as the primary teachers of children. I have always been very proud of the basic objective of the centre: to encourage the love of reading. I had long wondered how I could make anyone love anything, let alone make children love books. At that time many people thought it was ‘mission impossible’ in an age when technology and media were expanding rapidly and irresistibly, and when the formal education system, which was closely associated with books, was deteriorating and in deep trouble.

    Culture for children

    The centre cost millions of dollars to build, but that was the easiest part because the Qattan family did everything necessary to arrange the funding for the construction. The start of building work coincided with the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 2000, and the task of initiating cultural activities for children in Gaza faced innumerable obstacles, such as road closures and bans on taking building materials into Gaza – bans that sometimes lasted months and even years, and some of which continue till today. Then there were the problems bringing in printed material and other library supplies, as well as the special types of furniture suitable for a children’s library. For some kinds of furniture there was a two-year delay between placing the orders and the goods arriving in Gaza. But the Qattan Centre for the Child has set a new standard for cultural services to children and families, not just in the Gaza Strip but in the whole Arab world and internationally.

    Many of the professionals who work with children worried about how enthusiastic the children would be about books and were sceptical that the idea would succeed, especially as the centre offers its services for free to all children and their families without distinction. The process of training those who were going to work with the children did not go according to the initial plan because no members of the team were able to travel or receive international trainers to work with them. That may have made them more determined to carry out the project as fully as possible and to try to make it the best centre in the world. That’s what in fact happened, and the centre opened in 2005 – the start of a new stage in working with children face to face and putting all our theories into practice.

    It was one of the most exhausting and enjoyable periods of my life by far. The children took us completely by surprise. It was as if, in their childish way, they were sticking out their tongues at us, at our theories and our beliefs about their reactions and their interests. On the first day, when we were still in the preparatory phase and arranging the books on the shelves in the library (we hadn’t yet opened the doors to the public), three girls who were not yet nine years old came walking past. ‘What’s that?’ they asked me, innocently pointing at the centre. I remember asking them, ‘Would you like to see it?’ Young Saha took my hand in response and followed. As long as I live I’ll never forget the amazement in the eyes of the children at everything they saw that day. The next day, with absolutely no preparation on our part, we were surprised to find hundreds of children coming to see the centre. Who needs a publicity campaign for a children’s centre? Thousands of Gaza children had joined the centre within a few years, and the children continued to amaze us with their talents and their strong will to live, even as conditions in Gaza grew worse. The children’s comments that impressed me most were: ‘Why isn’t our school like this?’ and ‘Now we’re in touch with the world.’ The children used technology interactively, and for those who don’t live in Gaza, it’s important to understand that the Internet is the only form of communication for everyone when everything else is cut off and humanity is in short supply.

    Surprise in the children’s eyes

    The children read avidly and took a keen interest in writing and reading, in creative activities and the arts, and although there was plenty on offer for the children to choose from, the demand always outstripped what the centre could provide. I still remember clearly the surprise in the children’s eyes and how much their behaviour and their personalities changed, although there was no programme specifically designed to bring about such changes. I still remember Mansour, the deaf boy who came to the centre every day even though he couldn’t read, and the complaints that he behaved rather roughly when he first joined. But after all the love that our colleague Tahani showed him, Mansour started teaching all of us what love and being human meant. He managed to build up a network of relationships with the other children in the centre. In fact, he even started to help the other children and sometimes those working at the centre.

    Mona, a nine-year-old girl, put an excellent suggestion to the centre management, saying she wanted to arrange a meeting for the children at the centre on children’s rights. It was very moving: she gathered all the relevant material from the library, brought the children together and then all she did was write out each right on a board in front of the children. She followed that up by asking, ‘Do you have this right?’ The response of the children was amazing. Each of them told stories from their own experience about violations of their rights, for example that their elder siblings couldn’t leave Gaza to go to university, that sick people couldn’t travel for treatment and many, many other stories. Mona made me ask myself many questions, most importantly: ‘How can we ensure that these children have an oasis of freedom where they can live life as they wish, and not as we adults wish?’ They have more creativity, honesty and passion and a greater sense of wonder than we adults have. Maybe it’s time for us professionals who work with children to keep quiet more, and listen more and think hard about new mechanisms for working with them.

    We who work with children sometimes need to admit that, wittingly or unwittingly, we offer the children cultural activities that suit our own ideas and beliefs. This is not the time or place for me to judge those ideas and beliefs, but I would be very worried if we were creating a cultural environment through which we inadvertently teach children to like what we like and dislike what we dislike. Wouldn’t that be worrying?

    Throughout my experience as director of the Qattan Centre for the Child, which lasted more than twelve enjoyable years, I was often aware of what I called at the time ‘professional isolation’. That’s because the centre was the first of its kind in Palestine and the Arab world and was operating in a rapidly changing environment – changing usually for the worse – and it was completely impossible to plan for the changes when Gaza was under blockade and there were constant closures and almost everything was banned. We didn’t have access to professional resources to answer the questions that often arose when we were at work; everything depended on the team doing its own research and thinking, and on plenty of debate and uncertainty as well. I must admit that this wasn’t totally bad, because our ability to handle unexpected circumstances became highly refined: we learned how to make plans we knew we probably wouldn’t be carrying out, and so we also made alternative plans to back up the original plans. I must also admit that somehow or other the intense effort and the very tiring work was a form of therapy that spared us from thinking about the reality of Gaza, which was very often impossible. This was clearly evident in the most difficult times, when we sometimes tried to compensate by producing even more material for the children, far more than we had planned, and I noticed this clearly while preparing the monthly report. We also became highly skilled at identifying the voices of our colleagues working in the same foundation in the West Bank, whom we hadn’t met for years because the Israelis refused to give them permits to enter or leave Gaza. On top of that, we even learned to tell over the phone whether they were well or not.

    I visited the Qattan Foundation several times in the first four months of my work, but after that visits came to an end because of the Israeli ban on permits. We met in Jordan or London almost every year but my second visit to the foundation itself had to wait for another ten straight years.

    Positive changes

    Living conditions in Gaza, which have been deteriorating for many years, have had both negative and positive effects on working in education there, either formal or informal. On the one hand these conditions encouraged children to take more interest in the library, to take advantage of the diverse cultural activities and to switch from painting to music to singing to creative writing and theatre and computer literacy and other things. It encouraged their families to understand the importance of such activities for the healthy development of their children, especially when they saw positive changes (not intended but doubtless welcome) in their children. The changes took various forms: for example, according to their mothers, children who came to the centre were less rough when they were playing and some of them became more responsible towards their families and their younger siblings. Their academic performance improved at school and the families felt that their children were seriously interested in what the centre had to offer, and this was a great comfort to the families, especially in light of the constant political influences and changes.

    The centre also gave the children, the families and the professionals working with the children a breathing space to meet and take part in activities, not just as an audience but also as organisers and participants, and by saying what they thought of the activities before they were offered to the children and sometimes by actually providing them to the children.

    The centre set the general framework for activities by adopting a system of themes. We noticed through the statistics at the end of every month that the children read widely in the field of fiction and entertainment, which is natural, whereas scientific subjects were of less interest to them, perhaps because they seemed too dry and heavy and directly connected with school. As an experiment we set aside three months for science: the centre focused its activities on science in an entertaining, accessible and interactive way, coordinated with all the related activities such as reading stories, drama, art exhibitions, trips, and of course computers and technology. At the end of the first month the number of science books taken out of the library on loan had risen by 25 percent, and at the end of the second month by 75 percent.

    This experiment made me worried and pleased at the same time – worried about our ability ‘to mould the minds of the children without anyone questioning us’, and pleased at what we could elicit from these children if we adults helped to provide a real opportunity for them to bloom like flowers.

    The system of themes continued for several years, with the subjects changing. The themes were directly correlated to the reading statistics and the system evolved so that the children could choose the themes and vote on them electronically before planning started on the various activities.

    Palestine in general still suffers from a severe, if not total, lack of teacher-training institutes that properly prepare professionals working with children. There is also no clear Palestinian pedagogical approach towards working with children, or rather, to be more precise, no such approach in the context of informal education. The Palestinian heritage is extremely rich and can form an important primary source for developing a Palestinian national strategic plan for informal education.

    I cannot but applaud the interest the Qattan Foundation has shown in providing quality cultural services and especially the loving, dedicated and understanding support of Mr Abdel Muhsin al-Qattan.

    In 2011 I was awarded the French National Order of Merit in recognition of my work with children. I now look back on my experience with much love and appreciation, respect for my mistakes, and deep understanding that we cannot excel or make the slightest contribution to humanity without this passion for what we are doing, and also without asking many questions, most importantly: how can we adults who work with children find out how to help them, through love, to develop in a healthy way?
    Reem Mohamed Abu Jaber was the director of the Qattan Centre for the Child in Gaza, Palestine from 2000 to 2012.

    Translated by Jonathan Wright

    June 2014

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