My Trip with the Children of The Hands Up Project
Adrian Underhill, who recounts how The Hands Up Project has put young Palestinians in touch with their counterparts elsewhere in the world, describes his trip earlier this year accompanying a group of 15 Gazan schoolchildren through Israel to the West Bank to present their Hands Up productions to new audiences.
This texts are reprinted by permission of Hasting Online Times (HOT) https://hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk/ . Adrian’s trip was sponsored by Totness businessman Walt King, who accompanied him and made a video, A Taste of Palestine, which includes shots of some of the children’s productions.
On Sunday 17 March my colleague Nick Bilbrough and myself get a lift from Jerusalem to Gaza with two UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) lawyers who are living and working there. We enter by the Erez crossing which, apart from limited access via the Rafah crossing into Egypt in the south, is the only entry/exit point between Gaza and the rest of the world.
On arrival we meet up with Melissa Scott, one of the Hands Up trustees, who’s made a number of trips here, and is writing a book on Palestinian cooking. Like Nick, she knows lots of people in the region and during the next few days she is as likely to be trying out traditional cooking with local women as visiting schools with us. She tells us there was a rocket exchange between Israel and Gaza a couple of days before we arrived; no one was injured though people in our UNRWA hostel had felt the building shake.
There are two delightful guards outside our hostel, an UNRWA guard to ensure no one UNRWA doesn’t approve of enters the building, and a Hamas guard to make sure Nick and I don’t go out anywhere we shouldn’t. But it’s all quite amiable.
Did you know?
Gaza is a self-governing Palestinian territory, a little smaller than the Isle of Wight, though with 13 times the population (1.8 million). Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since 2007, severely limiting its ability to survive at all.
Exit: Gazans can only exit Gaza in “exceptional humanitarian cases.”
Borders: Gaza borders Israel on its north and east and Egypt to the south. Its entire west border is the Mediterranean coast line, but there is no entry or exit by sea either, as it is patrolled by Israeli gun boats.
Fishing: Even Gazan fishing boats are restricted to 10 nautical miles (about 18 kilometres) from the coast.
Airport: Gaza International Airport was destroyed by the Israeli Defence Forces and closed in 2001.
Since it’s Nick’s birthday we celebrate. No alcohol of course, but a good fish meal and a chocolate birthday cake with a surprisingly robust firework on top. We are joined by local teachers involved in the Hands Up project.
On Monday Nick and myself (we are both English language teachers) attend the first conference of a new association of Palestinian teachers of English, which will give local teachers more contact with teachers abroad.
Outside the conference hall the sun is shining, and inside the hall is full of the smiling faces of enthusiastic teachers, a welcoming atmosphere and great feeling of achievement at forming a teacher association, and being together to speak about what matters.
When the conference is over we go with some of the local teachers to men’s night at the Turkish bath, built by Ottomans centuries ago and recently restored. It’s the hottest water I’ve ever been in.
Tuesday morning, and Maha (education specialist for UNRWA, which runs the schools in the refugee camps in Gaza) drives us down to Rafah near the Egyptian border in the south to visit several schools and see some of the Hands Up plays. We are welcomed by the pupils and staff.
We then meet classes and work with three of the plays. The plays we hope to take to Jenin and Bethlehem in the West Bank are Story of a Homeland, Lord of Show and I will Wait til they Open the Gate.
Three schools in one building
Due to lack of school buildings three entirely separate schools may occupy a school building through the day, each using the building for four hours, with entirely separate teachers, admin and head teachers. One school starts at 7am, the next at 11am and the third at 3pm. The picture shows one head teacher, with two of her staff, at the UNRWA school in Rafah.
Later we hear that the 15 kids aged nine–12 doing the three plays which we will take to Jenin and Bethlehem in the West Bank have, on appeal, been granted four-day permits to leave Gaza – they had initially been refused permits. But there’s a catch – they must leave tomorrow, a day earlier than we requested, giving them only 24 hours to get ready. It is the first time in their lives they will go outside Gaza or be away from their parents. This means we need to get an extra day’s accommodation in Bethlehem for them and their three teachers.
On Wednesday the children and their teachers leave for Bethlehem, which entails a two-hour drive from the Erez crossing to Jerusalem, and then under an hour to Bethlehem. Maha takes them in the UNRWA minibus. Nick and I decide to stay in Gaza City until tomorrow to work with the performances of several more plays in schools that are expecting us. It would be a pity to disappoint them – and ourselves – by cancelling. So we’ll leave Thursday and catch up with the kids in Bethlehem.
Later we hear that Maha has been refused exit from Gaza and has had to turn back. The kids and teachers continue on to Bethlehem without him. Everyone here has a plan A, B, C, D and beyond that any number of instantly improvised plans. They live on the edge the whole time, in a zone somewhere beyond Plan D. Throughout our stay Nick is constantly on the phone before leaving the hostel in the morning.
After visiting the schools in Gaza City, helping to develop the performances, giving out little prizes for those in winning plays, and watching a presentation by a newly established drama club for children, Nick and I visit the Qattan Library – an arts and education foundation set up by the Qattan family – to discuss the Hands Up Project. We show them some of the plays on YouTube and they are interested in getting involved in the project.
Thursday morning and we have finished the first part of the trip – to visit schools where classes have written, performed and video-recorded plays, and entered the competition. The presence of Nick and myself, from the international community outside Gaza, who value them, and who see and feel their situation, and who engage in worthwhile activities with them, maybe offers some seed of hope for the future, some feeling of connection and cultural esteem.
We go to the Erez crossing where, as expected, the search is thorough, and for many humiliating, and where all luggage is completely emptied into giant containers designed for the purpose. In Bethlehem we find the kids, make sure everyone has a good meal and then go to rehearse in the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Centre attached to the Aida refugee camp.
Now, think about this: these plays started life performed in a classroom and recorded on a mobile phone. Tomorrow they will be performed on a real stage to a live audience. This is a whole new step. The kids are right up for it but it requires major adjustment to use of space, voice projection and including a live audience. We should be okay for an enthusiastic audience because there are lots of visitors to the town for tomorrow’s Bethlehem marathon, which attracts charities from all over the world.
And there is another backdrop to everything here today – there is a strike because a local man was shot dead by Israelis last night, so things are in turmoil…as usual. Will there be violence at tomorrow’s marathon? Could it be suddenly cancelled?
In the evening near our hostel we find some guys making a polystyrene model section of Israel’s wall across Palestine, complete with graffiti, which they will put across the marathon route. This means that the leading runners will have to break through the polystyrene wall, and since runners are from all over the world, that means that it will be the international community that symbolically breaks through the wall…
On Friday we watch the marathon which starts and finishes in Manger Square. Hands Up trustee Melissa is running so the kids have someone to cheer for, and she does well too! After that we eat, then go to the theatre to set it up and rehearse for the evening.
The runners from round the world provide a good and supportive audience for the children. It goes down well, and at the end the kids all came on stage with their teachers to answer questions and receive ovations!
On Saturday the main aim is to go to Jenin to perform the plays in the Freedom Theatre. But remember, this is the first time out of Gaza in the lives of 17 out of 18 of our group, so they want and deserve maximum exposure to life outside Gaza.
Quotes…. “They lived happily. Suddenly some people came and occupied the land, and expelled them. They risked everything and rode the sea. They reached a new modern country. And the boy sold newspapers to help his family…”
We become tour operators for the day, stopping on the way in Ramallah to see the Yasser Arafat museum, his tomb, house, meeting rooms and all the history, then on to Jenin for the rehearsal and performance.
And then we drive on to Nablus to eat, and for the children to buy presents for their families. Then back to Bethlehem, late!
On Sunday… Back to Jerusalem where it is time to take our leave of the group – we are staying here while they return to Gaza, via a two-hour journey to the Erez crossing. The teachers dearly want to visit the Al Aqsa mosque (the third most sacred site in Islam) in Jerusalem, on their one opportunity out of Gaza. It is on the site of the second Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago and therefore a sensitive spot. And today is an Israeli public holiday which means Israelis will be walking in the area.
The Palestinian UNRWA drivers strongly advise we don’t take our group there, especially with 15 juniors, as things can easily get out of hand. So without fulfilling that particular dream the group returns directly to Gaza. And only just in time…a few hours later fresh rocket exchanges mean that the Erez border is closed once again. But in that four days, 17 people have been out of Gaza for the first time in their lives, and performed their plays to new audiences.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem Nick and I call on the Palestine National Theatre to see if they would like to put on a show featuring other plays from this year’s Hands Up entries. We meet Amer, the creative director, and Huda, promotions, who are both delighted by the idea and imaginative about how they can take three five-minute plays and mould them into a show. They can also help find accommodation for the kids and teachers in Jerusalem.
This will be perfect for the next group of kids from Gaza in June. We plan to bring another 15 groups, three at a time, to the West Bank to perform.
Since writing this account three more groups have been to the National Theatre in Jerusalem. They had a very exciting time, and once again this was the first time out of Gaza for all of the kids!
The visit to the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem referred to above took place in June. Adrian writes: “The brilliant Palestinian theatre director Raeda Ghazaleh worked with three finalist plays from UNRWA schools in Gaza: A stranger Within, It’s Your Choice and The Shadow Girl, and over two days magically wove their plays together into one, incorporating young Palestinians from Jerusalem into the performance. The photo shows the finale.”
The Hands Up Project puts young Palestinians in touch with the outside world
Educational opportunities for young Palestinians are limited, with school resources scarce and drastic restrictions imposed on their society as a whole. But thanks to modern communications, the enterprise of volunteers and their own willing efforts, Palestinian schoolchildren now enjoy a creative interchange with young people around the world, allowing both sides to gain important insights into each others’ lives. Hastings-based teacher Adrian Underhill explains how The Hands Up Project came about and its transformative effects on the lives of young Palestinians.
A few years ago a friend of mine, Nick Bilbrough, started doing storytelling in schools in Palestine, both Gaza and the occupied West Bank. The kids loved it, and apart from practising their English, it offered a powerful way to make connections with the rest of the world in a country where freedom of movement is severely limited and feelings of isolation common. And the kids were so engaged that they started telling stories too…
Then, using simple video conferencing tools, Nick connected directly from the UK with the children in their classes in Palestine, and continued storytelling, playing games and other kinds of chat and conversation, all in English via the internet. Soon he had gathered a group of volunteers from all over the world, who connect regularly with classes in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, as well as Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.
And what happens when kids are motivated and bursting with energy to express themselves? They put their hands in the air, hence The Hands Up Project (HUP)! The kids soon started to dramatize the stories they were telling, so several class members were involved in telling the story, and from this came the Remote Theatre Project, which is where I got involved.
The concept is so simple and the impact so compelling: any class in any school in Palestine can write and perform a mini drama in English, which is then made available to the rest of the world through the HUP YouTube channel. It works like this:
Remote Theatre: The five simple rules
1. Maximum five kids in a play
2. Maximum five minutes long
3. Written by the kids – in English – teacher can help
4. Acted and video recorded direct on static mobile phone
5. Video posted on the Hands Up YouTube channel
Last year 88 plays were entered, this year 180 plays – the majority are from Gaza where the enthusiasm is highest, perhaps because the internet provides the only way to ‘travel abroad’, and have a presence in the world outside the border.
These plays can be shown to children in any class in any school in the world. Schools in Turkey, Italy, South America and Finland are already doing this. The class can then meet the Gaza class in real time, through class-to-class video connection, and exchange conversation, comment on the play, meet the kids, ask questions – all in English. And maybe even perform the same mini play in return.
As initial encouragement, prizes have been awarded. An international panel has been set up which selects about 20 plays to go outside Gaza for a few days (if Israeli permits are granted) and perform live in the West Bank. And the winning play comes to the UK to be performed at different venues, which has happened both last year and this.
And what a boost it is for the kids and their culture to travel outside Gaza, to come to the UK, to get standing ovations, to experience a warm welcome, and to be heard, appreciated, and understood.
Many of the plays are about the current situation in Gaza and West Bank and the impact on life as seen through the children’s eyes. Others are more general stories about how to live in hard times, and topics such as diet, family life, marriage.
The Hands Up Project has won a British Council ELTon (English Language Teaching) award for innovation, which was presented last month in London in recognition of the life-changing work HUP is performing.
How can classes in Hastings schools meet classes from Gaza?
Here are seven ways you can get involved as a class, teacher or individual volunteer right here in Hastings:
- Class to class, face to face, online, and in real time. Have your class meet and get to know a Palestinian class. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Chat, exchange info on kids’ interests, family, media, life-style or carry out a Q&A.
Ask the Palestinian class to perform their Hands Up play – live for your class!
Later your class could perform the same play, in their own way, live for the Palestinian class, and enjoy more chat. Maybe your class could write and perform its own remote play.
See examples of this here.
- You as an individual can link up with a class to offer your choice of storytelling drama or chat as an English language lesson. There are already many volunteers doing this around the world. Contact HUP. See examples here.
- Become a School Ambassador in your area for HUP to let your colleagues know about the compulsive immediacy of seeing the world through children’s drama. Contact HUP.
- Join a HUP teacher training course and learn how to create Remote Theatre in your school. At the moment these courses – fully fledged teacher-training courses by world-renowned trainers working voluntarily – are offered in Palestine and in Devon. Contact HUP.
- Offer an online teacher development session for Gaza UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) teachers. These sessions are delivered by well-known English language teaching methodologists. Contact HUP. See playlist.
- Buy the book Toothbrush and Other Plays written by Palestinian children and use the plays with your own learners of English.
- Make a donation. We are entirely dependent on the generosity of individuals who want to make a difference to the lives of Palestinian children and young people. Please donate here.
See also Adrian’s account of his trip with Gazan schoolchildren to present their plays to audiences in the occupied West Bank.
Please check the Drama Techniques for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Advanced Drama and Improvisation Techniques for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creating an Inclusive School Environment course at Pilgrims website
My Trip with the Children of The Hands Up Project
Adrian Underhill, UK