A word from the founder and director of I CAN MOVE, Nadia Arouri:
The idea of creating a community dance performance that targets street-children / child-labourers grew in me gradually throughout the rehearsals of the community dance performance of EXILE in the summer of 2011. The artistic team and I would sometimes go out after our rehearsals to grab a coffee and cake in Café de la Paix. Many children often came by and asked if we would buy gum, ID covers, or whatever it is they had at that moment. However, a boy named Yehya – at least that’s what he always told us his name was – asked us “what is it that you do?” The minute we told him about our programme, Yehya’s eyes widened and he asked if we do ‘such things’ with ‘normal’ children or with boys like him as well?
I took Yehya’s number and promised to contact him next time we do a performance so that he can join. I also promised to call him in a week’s time to give him tickets to the premiere of EXILE at the Ramallah Cultural Palace. Yehya walked back to the traffic light singing like he always did. A week later I tried to call Yehya only to find out the number I had was wrong. Back then I felt angry with myself as I thought I had made a mistake when writing down the number. Little did I know about the reality of boys like him, who live in constant fear and thus would never share their real name nor contact details with a stranger.
Between August 2011 and June 2012 in my eyes the number of street-children / child-labourers in Ramallah quadrupled. As if that alone is not enough, I sadly also observed people becoming more aggressive towards them. When a child would pass by a coffee shop, various accusations would be thrown at the children, ranging from calling them thieves, to theories about how wealthy their parents were or theories of parental abuse.
On June 10th 2012, while sitting in QMH Bakery with my colleague, I noticed a street- child /child-labourer approach a car that had just parked. After exchanging some words with the child, the man in the parked 4-wheel drive aggressively opened the car door, hitting the child to the floor. It only took me a few seconds to recognise the child – it was singing Yehya.
After checking in with Yehya, I told him how sad I was that I had obviously written his number wrong and that I couldn’t reach him to give him the tickets for the premiere of EXILE, upon which he told me that he gave me the wrong number and that he cannot give me the real one because I could give it to the police. Hence, I gave him my business-card and told him he could check our website, and if he felt like he would like to join us, and trust that we will not go to the police then he could call me. With this Yehya walked again in the direction of the traffic light singing like he always does, as I made him a promise that the next performance would be for “boys like him”.
Recruiting street-children / child-labourers in the following months proved to be a very tricky task. The data the children shared with the YANTE staff was almost always fake. It was only in December 2012 that one of the street-children / child-labourers decided to trust the assistant to the programme coordinator, Areen Shehadeh, after she had followed him around for weeks in a row in the cold winter, with the Narrative Report of EXILE in her hand, attempting to show the street-children / child-labourers pictures of the other children dancing, in order to gain their trust.
Once the first agreed to share his real name and phone number, the rest of the children gradually came along. By end of January 2013, 19 street- children / child-labourers had signed up for the performance. A meeting was set with them on February 1st 2013 to which less than 10 of them showed up and informed us that the rest of the street-children / child-labourers changed their mind and would not be joining. We had a short talk with the children and explained to them our motives, our values, the rehearsal plan and the planned media campaign to raise awareness to their living circumstances. Most importantly we made it clear to the street-children / child-labourers that we as YANTE cannot do this alone, that we need their commitment and dedication. We as YANTE cannot change people’s image of them, if they themselves don’t change the way they view themselves and in accordance their behaviour.
This prelude must have had a positive resonance amongst the street-children / child- labourers, as more than 20 joined on the first day of rehearsals. By the end of the first week 31 street-children / child-labourers joined the rehearsals of “The Rite of Spring / Le Sacre du Printemps”.
In the year 2011, 17 children from the town of Tammoun participated in the community dance performance EXILE. Only boys from Tammoun were allowed to participate in the rehearsals and performance of EXILE, citing ‘cultural’ restraints. However, after having watched the full EXILE performance, where the boys were physically and mentally communicating with girls in a healthy manner, the mayor of Tammoun walked up to the organisation team, invited them to dinner and said, “next time we will also send our girls to dance with you”.
Hence, in Autumn 2012, the admin staff of YANTE contacted the coordinators of the Youth Institution for Young Boys and Girls Tammoun, informed them about the upcoming performance and asked them to gather a group of 50 children, with 25 girls and 25 boys, including some of the boys who had previously participated in EXILE.
After many phone calls and negotiations YANTE’s admin staff was informed in January 2013 that they were unable to recruit any girls, citing again cultural constraints. Subsequently the admin team asked the club if they could help organising a meeting with some mothers from the area. The club coordinators were, as usual, extremely helpful and cooperative. Within a few days, the coordinators had arranged for a meeting with the mothers in the beginning of February.
In a short but heart-warming meeting, Nadia Arouri spoke to the women about the experience the 17 boys of Tammoun had undergone in 2011. She presented the Narrative Report, with the many pictures of the children, which built trust and encouraged the women to allow their girls to participate in the rehearsals and performances of “The Rite of Spring / Le Sacre du Printemps”.
As the rehearsals started a few weeks later, the admin staff, coordinators of the Youth Institution for Young Boys and Girls Tammoun, the artistic team and the trainees were extremely enthused to welcome more than 40 girls and 30 boys into the municipality hall of Tammoun.
Yet again, community dance has proven to provide a medium for females to enforce their equality with men, to openly express themselves and appreciate their physicality, as prejudices against them are broken in the course of the training.
One of I CAN MOVE’s important work philosophies is that of bringing together contrasting social strata within each artistic work, in other words, an encounter between opposite ends of the spectrum. Hence street-children / child- labourers, i.e. the least economically privileged children in society, are brought together with children from private schools, i.e. the most economically privileged children in society.
Some of the members of the admin team and the trainees were graduates from private schools and looking back on their school years, seemed to share the wish that there had been more common activities and cooperation between the schools, apart from sports tournaments. Hence, the team decided to combine three schools: The Friends Schools, The Arab Evangelical Episcopal School, and The Mustaqbal School.
60 children were invited to join from the Friends Schools, 60 children where invited to join from the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School, and 40 children were invited to join from the Mustaqbal School. Together with the 40 street-children / child-labourers it would make 200 children. The children from each school would then be split into two groups. 100 children would rehearse on Monday and Wednesday and the other 100 children would rehearse on Tuesday and Thursday .The rehearsals on Monday and Tuesday would take place at the Friends Schools, and the rehearsals on Wednesday and Thursday would take place at the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School. Hence, each of the children would be brought together with children from two other schools as well as street-children / child-labourers, and the child would have one rehearsal at his school and another at a new and different school.
The schools were very cooperative right from the start and gave us time to speak to their students about the upcoming performance. The schools also provided their facilities in-line with their extra-curricular activities’ schedule.
Between June 2012 and February 2013 the staff of YANTE held many meetings with society figures as well as private and public sector officials to brainstorm and initiate actions to tackle the issue of street-children / child-labourers. YANTE defined the situation as follows:
Hence: What can the private sector do, and what is the government’s role in enabling it?
Talks were held with stakeholders from various branches of the private sector, the most fruitful of which were with the banks. A high ranking bank official proposed in September 2012 that the banks would employ those children in the afternoons to do handicraft and art works in advertisements for the bank, hence ensuring that the children are attending school and are working in a safe and protected environment, where their creativity is encouraged, their skills are elevated, and most importantly, where they have a healthy encounter with society, hence integrating them back into the social structure and eliminating their feeling of being “outcasts”. This proposal was brought forth to other banks, as well as the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs. Some of the Palestinian banks expressed interest in this proposal, under the prerequisite of course that the public sector would ensure that the necessary measures, laws and regulations are in place so that the banks’ would not break any laws by employing the children.
Further meetings were held with the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs, who expressed interest in the initiative, but were however sceptical of the scope of community dance as such and the administrative team’s capacities of recruiting the street-children / child-labourers. They were unwilling to take any actions before the beginning of February 2013. Thus YANTE again met with the Ministry of Social Affairs in February 2013, who provided YANTE with some statistics on domestic violence and school drop-outs, explaining that before taking any actions on the legal level or else, they would need exact statistics about street-children / child-labourers including the exact circumstances that forced those children into labour.
The rehearsals of “The Rite of Spring / Le Sacre du Printemps” started as planned on the February 15th 2013 in Tammoun, where 75 children joined the rehearsals. The fact that so many young girls joined the rehearsals on that day was a remarkable progress and great feedback for the I CAN MOVE admin and artistic teams.
Rehearsals in Ramallah started on the February 17th 2013. Due to some difficulties with the rehearsal space and the subsequent changes in location some of the children of the
Friends School sadly had to drop out. Additionally, the original plan of having two groups, one rehearsing on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other rehearsing on Tuesdays and Thursdays, was difficult to maintain as some children were really happy about the opportunity and ended up joining on all four days, while others joined for three days. Then there were those children who were committed to other extra-curricular activities on one of the days of each pair, hence ended up joining Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This inconsistency led to a delay in the rehearsing schedule. Accordingly, the delay had to be caught up during buffer time as well as an additional rehearsal session.
During the rehearsals of “The Rite of Spring / Le Sacre du Printemps” the community dance team worked with around 250 children aged 8 to 22 years old from communities in the West Bank: mainly Ramallah and Tammoun, with a few from Betounia, Deir Al-Sudan, Qalandia, Toulkarem, El-Bireh, and others. The selection of the target group was based on the belief of YANTE and its partners that any local culture weakens and degrades if limited to the privileged and the elite.
This performance was organised based on the belief that inequality is a process by which the victim is forced into a reduced level of participation in the public sphere. Since visibility is power, this performance utilized the stage of dance, allowing the marginalized to claim the spotlight. Street- Children are faced on daily basis with rejection and with reasons for pessimism. This performance tried to bring back to them a portion of their childhood by giving them a scenario to ponder about, in which they are the centre of the event as participants, not bystanders. Performances like this combine entertainment with social awareness against community-fragmenting stereotyping and practices, towards consolidation of the culture of peace and tolerance amongst Palestinians.
Many positive changes of attitude were observed among the participants. Some of the participants came from religious families. At the beginning of rehearsals they were sceptical of the project and the prospect of men dancing. Some were even undisciplined in the first two weeks of rehearsals. However starting week three, the I CAN MOVE team started observing a positive change of attitude on the part of many of those students.
Some of the participants from the private schools had a very negative attitude towards their fellow economically disadvantaged participants. It was only towards the end of week three that those students were observed interacting with their fellow participants on eye-level while working on a dance sequence. By the end of the project the trainers observed a strong consolidation of participants.
Some of the street-children / child-labourers were observed to act very aggressively when dealing with fellow street-children / child- labourers. The aggression seemed like the “common language” those children spoke amongst each other. Through close mentorship and lots of dedication on the part of the team toward those participants, positive changes in attitude could be achieved. Violence was reduced and some of the older participating children softened in their presence. They also became more invested during rehearsals.
Younger street-children / child-labourers were having difficulties focusing and were observed to constantly twitch and fidget during the first week of rehearsals. These are considered symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Starting week three, clear improvements were observed in some of those children. Some even stopped showing any of the symptoms by the time they got on stage in week five.
Many of the parents of the children from private schools also reported positive changes in behaviour of their children. Some parents reported that their children were more focused at home. In other cases, teachers reported an improvement in school grades amongst the children.
These are only a few examples of the changes the team witnessed within the individual participants and the groups in general.
To increase exposure to the event and hence to the awareness surrounding the issues of child-labour, it was important for the I CAN MOVE team to reach out to a wider scope of society. Accordingly private and public schools were invited to watch the performance.
A special cooperation was also created with the UNRWA, were firstly future cooperation was discussed, and secondly the headquarters recommended to all of its schools to organise a school activity day/school trip to watch the performance and discuss it within the school. Three UNRWA schools joined us to watch the performance.
Similarly, private schools were invited to watch the performance. Additionally, the Total Communication School Palestine Red Crescent Society for deaf and mute children joined the performance to watch their fellow deaf and mute participants dancing on stage.
Ma’an Center for Development also organised for a bus of school children from Jerusalem to join one of the performances.
In line with YANTE’s policies and the previous performances, all performances were presented to the public pro-bono.
The premiere of the performance “The Rite of Spring / Le Sacre du Printemps” celebrated the successful commencement of the first year of training for the YANTE trainees who were invited on stage for an applause of recognition, to the immense amount of hours and efforts they invested not only in the performance and campaign targeting street-children / child- labourers, but also in their individual training and growth.
Working in the community often presents challenges because it means working with humans, i.e. individuals who differ in their needs, preferences, opinions, values, and habits. I CAN MOVE strives to accompany the various participants and society members in their individual journey, as they negotiate their space amongst and within their surroundings. We aspire to take the participants and their family members on a journey in which they recognize their similarities by acknowledging common basic needs, shared by all.
One of the first challenges arose on the second day of rehearsals in Tammoun. As the artistic director, Nadia Arouri was standing in the parking lot of the Tammoun municipality, a group of five to six young Hamas members attempted to enter the rehearsal with camera’s / phones in their hands. As Nadia Arouri stood in their way and asked them how she could help them, one of the Hamas men pushed her down to the ground and rushed towards the hall. He attempted to film the rehearsals through the door and the window as the members of the Youth Institution for Young Boys and Girls Tammoun tried to get the situation under control and ordered the Hamas members off of the municipal grounds.
That evening, the Hamas member launched a defamation campaign against the I CAN MOVE programme on Facebook and in the town of Tammoun. The campaign threatened the I CAN MOVE team publicly. The campaign was shut down within less than 12 hours, thanks to members of the Youth Institution for Young Boys and Girls Tammoun who stood up within their town, as well as the Governor of Toubas, Mr. Marwan Toubassi, who promptly intervened for the protection of individual freedom and plurality.
The I CAN MOVE team would especially like to thank Amjad Bani Odeh (coordinator of the Youth Intitution for Young Boys and Girls in Tammoun) for his relentless efforts since 2011.
Street-children / Child-labourers and their families are alienated as a social group. When a group is out-casted by the rest of society, it is self-evident that mistrust would prevail amongst them. Hence, the street-children / child-labourers and their parents time and time again questioned the motives of the I CAN MOVE programme and the aim behind the performance of “The Rite of Spring / Le Sacre du Printemps”. Some parents, especially fathers, asked the I CAN MOVE team for assurances that their children were not going to be arrested by the authorities due to our activities and the visibility that they were gaining.
As the programme progressed, the actions of the I CAN MOVE team spoke louder than the words about the values of YANTE and motives behind the performance.
Challenges were not only faced with the parents of the street-children / child-labourers, but also with a few parents of private school children. Although the registration form for the performance “The Rite of Spring / Le Sacre du Printemps”, which the parents filled out and signed did state quite clearly that the organisation was not responsible for providing food for the participants, neither during the rehearsals, nor the performances, some parents aggressively attacked the organisation, claiming it was the organisations responsibility when planning any activity to budget and be responsible for the food of the participants. It is morally still quite peculiar for the team members of I CAN MOVE, that although the entire programme was provided free of charge, some few parents demanded more instead of expressing their gratitude.
YANTE is aware that this behaviour is a result of the socio-political landscape of Palestine, especially Ramallah, which is a monetary donor attraction.
The overall number of audience for the performance tour of the production “The Rite of Spring / Le Sacre du Printemps” was expected to exceed 7000 persons. However due to political, economic, social and religious reasons only the premiere plus three performances in Ramallah took place, making an audience of 2000 – 2200 persons only.
The performance in Jerusalem had to be cancelled. Despite efforts of the Representative Office of the Federal Republic of Germany to attain permits for the children and trainees the Israeli occupation forces denied permits for the trainees, rendering the implementation of the performance in Jerusalem impossible.
The performance in Tammoun had to be cancelled due to a major car accident in the Jordan valley leaving many dead and others injured. Many of those affected came from the Toubas and Tammoun area, hence out of courtesy to their families the performance was cancelled.
Additional performance in Ramallah and Bethlehem had to be cancelled due to a major strike announced by the Palestinian schools and universities in protest to the economic situation of the teachers.
The performance in Nablus was planned to take place at the amphitheatre of the Najah University. Three days prior the I CAN MOVE team was informed by the Najah University that due to religious considerations the performance could not take place at the amphitheatre and would be held at the indoor theatre. Unfortunately the performance had to be cancelled, because the indoor stage was too small and could not even accommodate 50 children, let alone 200 children.
Despite all these challenges and some setbacks, we are happy to have succeeded in opening up space for marginalised children and giving them the chance to claim their spot in society.