Rehearsing for Freedom: In West Bank Refugee Camps and in Gaza, Theatre Helps Children Channel Their Chronic Fears and Traumas
Solomon, Alisa, American Theatre
When AbdelFattah Abu-Srour was a young boy in the early 1970s, he used to make up little plays with his friends. From their home in Aida refugee camp--near Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank--they'd run down to a dusty field and create sketches about their lives and fantasies, just like kids all over the world. Two decades later, when Abu-Srour returned to this home after spending nine years studying for his Ph.D. in France, he was disturbed to find that local children could no longer go to that field--it had been claimed by Israel as a security area.
Meanwhile, the few playgrounds and open spaces that had existed amid Aida camp's maze of narrow streets had disappeared: As the population of the camp continued to grow, its boundaries remained fixed, and every available patch of land was snatched up for housing. Today, nearly 5,000 people live crammed into 16 acres in Aida, one of the makeshift camps established by the United Nations for Palestinians who lost their homes and livelihoods fleeing the 1948 war over the establishment of the state of Israel. Over the past 60 years, the camps have solidified into closed-in, overcrowded hothouses of deprivation and squalor. (There are 27 such camps amid the cities and villages of Palestine--19 in the West Bank and 8 in the Gaza Strip--and others in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.)
A soft-spoken man with a gentle manner and an easy laugh, Abu-Srour says that he couldn't stand to see children so stifled, both physically and psychologically. Because Aida camp sits close to the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel--a site holy to Jews--and is nearly adjacent to the Jewish settlement of Gilo, it is surrounded by Israeli military outposts. Abu-Srour says confrontations between soldiers and kids from Aida throwing stones take place "almost daily." Military incursions and raids, along with Israeli-imposed curfews, often restrict children to their homes--and traumatize them. He wanted to give young people a safe place to play, express themselves and unleash their imaginations. For him, there was one obvious answer: Make theatre.
Though Abu-Srour had earned his doctorate in biological and medical engineering, he hadn't abandoned his love of writing, directing and acting. While he was studying science at Paris-Nord University, he also formed a theatre company that created its own pieces. Then he taught theatre for a year in France before going back to Palestine in 1994. He soon started teaching theatre workshops in his time off from his job with a pharmaceutical company. And, in 1998, he opened Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center in Aida camp. Children from ages 7 to 17 study acting and playwriting and put up polished, original shows; the troupe has toured around the West Bank and to Europe and the United States.
Al-Rowwad (it means "pioneer" in Arabic) is just one of some sparse but solid theatre projects for children in Palestine that pursue ambitious and explicit aims to help kids cope with--and respond creatively to--the stresses of occupation. Among them: training sessions conducted in the West Bank by the Palestine Red Crescent Society that use performances for children and their parents and caregivers to provoke discussion about violence and safety; a drama troupe of teenagers working out of the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh refugee camp, also near Bethlehem; and the full-scale productions and workshops at the thriving, two-year-old Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, where circumstances are even more dire, young people are engaging theatre in a variety of shapes at such places as the Gaza YMCA, the Culture and Free Thought Association's children's center, and the Basma Society for Culture and Arts.
These programs vary in approach, size, level of artistic sophistication and style. But they share a stirring faith in theatre as a critical tool for young people--as a form that can help them to discover their identities, relate to others and simply have some fun. …