Khaled Al-Ostath | 14-06-2016
The room could belong to a child anywhere in the world: Spiderman posters and Tom and Jerry stickers on the walls, a red carpet, a dresser. Outwardly, Hesham appears quite normal, too. He is sitting on a mat on the floor, watching Mr. Bean on TV with friends. When the program is over, the boys head out to play football [soccer].
But what’s different about this boy is that his room is one of 10 with six beds each and no parents live in the home, only “caregivers.” Hesham lives in the Al-Amal Institute for Orphans in Gaza City.
The orphanage, which takes in children ranging in age from 6 to 18, was established more than six decades ago. It remains the only home for orphans in Gaza City and therefore only has room for the neediest children. In the aftermath of the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, the number of orphans living at the institute doubled to approximately 145.
In the summer of 2015, I read in the news about organizations that conduct activities for the children in the orphanage, to bring them some fun and happiness. I thought to myself, “Why should I sit at home without helping them too, as much as I can?” So I made an appointment to visit Al-Amal and determine what I could do to help.
The orphanage administrator, Rewayda Kassab, arranged for me to meet with 12 boys between 6 and 10 years old. I brought them some snacks, coloring books and stories to read, and we sat together on the floor for two hours, talking. They eagerly listened to the stories I read in Arabic and then in English. We also talked about how English is important to the world as a sort of “universal language,” and how it is especially beneficial for the people of Gaza to learn. “It’s important,” I said, “because a person who is fluent in English has greater career opportunities, can travel more easily, and communicate with people from different cultures and countries.”
Yet these children knew nothing in English; they couldn’t even write their names.
I decided to take on the task of teaching them English from the beginning, starting with the alphabet. Youth like me should take the lead in empowering the next generation, I believe. I call my project, “Reading Stars of Gaza,” and in December 2015, I conducted the first official class for 20 children. Wars feed stories of despair but all children need to be fed on hope. My goal is to end the sense of isolation and hopelessness that pervades the lives of these children and instead feed their imaginations with a better future. Children in a war zone have just as much right to “happily-ever-after” stories as all kids worldwide.
“But Mr. Khaled!” Yazaen said. “It will be difficult, boring and complicated for me to understand.” In the beginning, the children thought my class would be tedious and boring, because that is how they had experienced English-learning in school. “Everything’s coming up waters,” I said. “We will have fun and watch Mr. Bean (in English with Arabic subtitles).”
For five months now, I have been meeting my students three days a week, for one and a half hours each time. We do games with the alphabet, such as drawing the letters and coloring them. I read short stories out loud as well. In a recent class, for example, I read a Tom and Jerry story about the cat and the mouse.
Based in part on my activities for “Reading Stars of Gaza,” I was accepted as an intern for the summer 2016 program of New Story Leadership. This program brings young adults from Palestine and Israel to Washington, D.C., to develop peace-making projects.
“When I become an adult, I want to be a doctor,” Hesham recently told me. Hearing such statements of hope, from a child who once had none, in a language that Americans understand, is what motivates me to keep on going, despite all of the obstacles I face myself.
Posted: June 3, 2016
Mentor: Catherine Baker