"Wahad! Tineen! Thalata! ('1, 2, 3' in Arabic)" cheerful voices bounced off bear concrete walls as young boys and girls kicked dust off the floor with steps of Debkeh (traditional Palestinian dance), in a half-finished community hall at Ibdaa Cultural Center. Several circles of dancers were turning and hopping in front of my eyes, improving complicated steps and movements with each round they danced. The novice dancers, ages 11 and 12, were being taught by a group of older kids, 15 and 16 year olds of Ibdaa Dance Troupe. The young teachers, who have performed in several European countries and US, enthusiastically instructed and observed with care their students. The students practiced with great seriousness, their cheeks turning rosy and eyes shiny.
Activities at Ibdaa Cultural Center, which consisted of various educational, social and cultural programs to empower the deprived children and youths of the camp, experienced serious setbacks with an arson fire the end of last summer. As defiant and committed community members were about to restarting the programs after much rebuilding effort, the Intifada broke out. In the turmoil and violence that dominated life, the Center was no longer able to carry out many activities, especially their outdoor programs such as sports trainings and educational field trips.
Bombings, shootings, and deaths of their fellow youths have profoundly been disturbing the children in the camp. Dheisheh has already lost five of its youths from this Intifada. Three of them were killed continuously within 5 days in November, when Bethlehem's martyrs cemetery ran out of burial space. Someone from Dheisheh donated a piece of land, where the youths of the camp buried the three right next to each other under an olive tree, crying. Each time I visited the cemetery, I saw fresh flowers, new pictures and letters being placed on their tombstones. Their youthful smiles are seen everywhere in the camp, whose alleyways are covered with new posters and slogans of Intifada Al-Aqsa.
"My children still wake up from nightmares, screaming that soldiers will come to our home and kill us all, although the situation has been calmer in the last several weeks," said Wafa, a working mother with 3 young boys. "My little brother became always scared after the bombings," said Manar, a 15-year-old member of Ibdaa Dance Troupe who leads the dance practice. Bedwetting, lack of concentration and hysteric behaviors are also commonly seen among the children in Dheisheh. I have also noticed that so many small children are throwing rocks on the camp's alleyways, playing Intifada game - scenes that were not seen this often when I lived here before Intifada.
Sometimes, surprised parents would find their children on a television throwing stones on live broadcast of clashes. Some parents and leaders of Ibdaa Cultural Center would go and drag the camp's children home. "My nephew was wrapping his face with a scarf, to avoid being seen not by Israelis but by his family," said one of my friends with a bitter smile.
Mothers in the camp are upset and hurt by the internationally accepted myth about cold-blooded Palestinian parents who send their children to be killed by Israelis. "Why would they think like this? I love my children and I want the best for them," said Wafa. Susanne, her co-worker with 2 small sons, added: "Aren't mothers the same everywhere in the world?" Miyasr, a schoolteacher with 5 children, shook her head sadly and angrily to read a statement by Queen of Sweden, who accused Palestinian parents mentioning the same myth.
Responding to mounting concerns of the parents of Dheisheh, Ibdaa Cultural Center launched on emergency programs aiming to help children coping with Intifada. Various workshops, such as drawing, paper crafts, theater, and music workshops have been attended by over 300 children so far. Local musicians, theater group, artists, psychologists and social workers volunteered their times, and as well as the older children in the camp. Two mornings ago, a drawing workshop was being led by a local artist. Told to express their feelings and emotions, students collectively worked on a large piece of colorful crayon drawing which, in addition to common features of children's artwork like trees, houses, and hills, featured Israeli apache helicopters, tanks and soldiers.
"The kids were not so enthusiastic in the beginning, not concentrating on activities," said Ziad Abbas, co-director of the Center. "Now they can't wait for the program to begin. Look, some of the kids start showing up at around 8AM for the 10AM dance practice." Some parents have commented that the activities have helped reducing their children's stress level.
Manar enjoys teaching dancing and says "I feel happy to share what I have with younger children, because it is not fair how the situation has been to them." Asked what she wanted for everyone to have, she replied immediately: "A life with dignity."