Healing through theatre for scarred Palestinian children

“An incident in which the car her father was driving was shot at robbed the little girl of an eye, leaving an indelible mark on her psyche. As a result, she developed a skewed perception of normalcy, believing that having one eye was the standard.” Maltese artists come together to help Palestinian children cope with war trauma.

Young Elias* turned up in class in the occupied Palestinian West Bank one day wearing seven t-shirts. That way, he believed, he would better protect himself from potential gunfire.

George*, another schoolboy from the same neighborhood, appeared at the dinner table wearing one of his mother’s necklaces. He told his perplexed parents that he put it on in the hope of being mistaken for a girl, believing it might shield him from harm.

“The constant exposure to violence in the West Bank over the years – including what they witness happening now in Gaza – has instilled in many Palestinian boys the unsettling belief that their gender marks them as potential targets, leading them to perceive girls as beneficiaries of a fragile safety net,” Marina Barham, General Director of a Palestinian theatre company, told The Journal from her home in Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town in the Bethlehem governorate. She has direct access to these children through various theatrical projects that the company, Al-Harah (The Neighbourhood) Theatre, undertakes in schools among pupils aged between 8 and 12. Established in 2005 as a nonprofit organisation, Al-Harah Theatre has produced highly artistic, yet accessible, theatre productions and presented them to audiences throughout Palestine, the Arab world, and beyond.

The violence that has become a part of these children’s lives has deeply impacted their understanding of safety and security, she points out. They have seen Palestinian men being publicly targeted by Israelis more often than women, and this has instilled in them a sense of fear and vulnerability. As a result, some boys are refusing to attend school, and many are experiencing the emotional effects of trauma, including bed-wetting and nightmares.

Israeli forces detain 16-year-old Fawzi al-Juneidi in the West Bank city of Hebron in December 2017. The boy, who was beaten by soldiers during his arrest, was released on bail 20 days later. Photo: Wisam Hashlamoun/APA images

In spite of the disproportionate representation of men as victims of Israeli violence, though, the fact is that violence can and does affect everyone, including women and girls, Marina notes.  She recounts the story of Mary*, a Palestinian girl she came across during one of her school drama sessions. A life-altering incident in her childhood – when the car her father was driving was shot at – robbed her of an eye, leaving an indelible mark on her psyche. As a result, she developed a skewed perception of normalcy, believing that having one eye was the standard. This distorted view extended to her interactions with her dolls, as she began removing one of their eyes, and even extended to members of her family, with whom she attempted to do the same.

Children of war

Indeed, children are the most vulnerable victims of any conflict. While the occupied Palestinian West Bank is not currently subject to a relentless Israeli military onslaught like the Gaza Strip, the children who call it home still remain profoundly impacted by the ongoing strife. In the crucial formative years of their lives, when they should be nurtured and shielded from harm, children in the West Bank are exposed through the media to the harrowing reality of the Gaza Strip’s humanitarian crisis, including the devastating loss of innocent young lives. Health authorities in the Hamas-run territory have estimated that about 40% of those confirmed killed, a figure they now put at 23,357, were aged under 18. Thousands of children who have not been killed, ended up orphans and are experiencing extreme hardship and anguish.

The Israeli enhanced restrictive measures in the West Bank further hinder Palestinian children’s ability to attend school, visit relatives, or engage in recreational activities within their own neighborhoods. Moreover, the constant spectre of violence, whether perpetrated by Israeli forces or illegal Jewish settlers, casts a pall of fear over the West Bank, rendering many children too apprehensive to venture freely outdoors, especially those who have firsthand experience with violence or witnessed the violent loss of loved ones. The intensifying Israeli controls have further crippled the Palestinian economy, plunging many families in the West Bank into dire financial straits. The consequences of this hardship include widespread food insecurity, malnutrition, and a scarcity of basic necessities.

Children stand amid the rubble of a building destroyed during an Israeli raid at the Nur Shams camp for Palestinian refugees near the occupied West Bank city of Tulkarm. Photo: AFP/Zain JAAFAR

Overcoming trauma through theatre

Marina explains that, in the face of these challenging circumstances, there has been a rising demand from local schools for psychological interventions to support the children’s emotional well-being. “Since the beginning of the war on Gaza, schools in the West Bank have not been operating regularly, and as schools reopen, children are suffering from fear and trauma from all the news they are hearing about war, hostilities, aggression on Palestinian cities, Israeli settler’s violence against entire communities, and the like. We believe that theatre can change the lives of those who make it and those who watch it. We want to help children and youth overcome the trauma caused directly by the war and the challenging conditions that these children are living under in Palestine.”

Marina Barham, General Director of Al Harah Theater

In light of this need, Marina’s theatre company has swiftly adapted its approach by introducing psycho-social drama interventions tailored to the needs of 8- to 12-year-old pupils. To secure the resources necessary to sustain these life-changing programmes, the company has launched a pressing call for support. This urgent appeal is resonating with people worldwide, including here in Malta, where the proceeds from a theatrical production will be directed towards Al Harah Theatre’s drama therapy programmes for children in the Bethlehem area and its efforts to support artists in Gaza.

‘Gaza Monologues’ in Valletta

In Malta, renowned actors Simone Spiteri, Thomas Camilleri, Antonella Mifsud, Rebecca Camilleri, Philip Leone Ganado, Robyn Vella, and Aidan Aquilina, under the direction of Jean Marc Agius, will present rehearsed readings from ‘The Gaza Monologues’. The fundraising initiative, which is supported by Spazju Kreattiv and produced by Toni Attard, will be held at Spazju Kreattiv in Valletta on Saturday 20th January at 6pm and 8pm, and on Sunday 21st January at 8pm.

‘The Gaza Monologues’ is an international project advocating for the rights of children in Gaza by Ramallah’s Ashtar Theatre, and is based on personal stories of a group of children from Gaza. The monologues have been performed across 80 cities in 40 countries. The actors will also share works written in the past weeks by different people in Gaza about members of their families – children, women, and young people – killed during the attacks on Gaza.

Free tickets for the event are available from http://bit.ly/3vpz3OK and donations for Al Harah Theatre’s project may be made on https://gogetfunding.com/thegazamonologuesmalta/.

* In the interest of protecting the identities of minors, names of children referred to in this article have been changed.

Main photo: Reuters

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