“Please, Mr. Nick, will you tell people we are not terrorists?”
This was the request of a student in Rafah at the end of a video session with Nick Bilbrough from The Hands Up Project.
“This is tragic, isn’t it?” Bilbrough said later. “It’s so sad that a 13-year-old girl feels that people outside Palestine will view her as a terrorist.” These children were keenly aware of the terrorist stereotype too many outsiders have of Palestinians.
This was the moment that inspired Bilbrough to create Hands Up to dispel stereotypes about Palestine and Palestinians, and, more importantly, to give young Palestinians a platform and a voice to do this for themselves.
Founding of Hands Up
Nick Bilbrough is a British teacher, teacher trainer and author of resources for English-language instructors. He was coaching UNRWA and Ministry of Education teachers in the West Bank when he was contacted by the Tamer Institute for Community of Education in the Gaza Strip. Tamer invited Bilbrough to conduct a weekly storytelling session for children ages 12-14 via Skype, using a book he had written for the British Council called Stories Alive. As word spread about the project, volunteers stepped forward, wanting to help.
Soon, the storytelling sessions—now including 70 volunteers from every continent except Antarctica—expanded to students in schools elsewhere in Gaza, the West Bank, and the Zatari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan. They tell stories and teach English in the process. But over time, a new teaching technique was added: drama. Participating students express their feelings, concerns, fears and hopes by both writing and acting out their stories.
“The first time we videotaped our acting, I was terrified,” says Noor Shamaly, 14. “But after that, I became braver. When we went to Bethlehem to perform in person, there were so many people, foreigners and Arab too! I stumbled a little in my lines, but everyone loved our acting and praised us. After this experience, I felt encouraged to participate in every activity at school without fear or hesitation. Gradually, my self-confidence increased. Plus, I’m developing my English and expanding my acquaintances by getting to know new people and cultures from all over the world.”
Hands Up runs a playwriting competition in which the young people create five-minute plays in English. Each “production” must include no more than five actors and be performed in one take. The best plays are selected by judges from several different countries, with winners traveling to the UK and elsewhere to perform.
“The first year of the competition, we had 88 entries. Most of them were from Gaza, and the winners were a group of girls from Khan Younis who had never been outside before. Hands Up paid for them to come to the UK to perform their play at Westminster University in London,” recalls Bilbrough. “Hands Up also brought the three most highly ranked plays to the West Bank to The Freedom Theater in Jenin and at Al Rawad Cultural Center in Bethlehem.”
The competition now is in its third year, with the last attracting 160 entries. Overall, about 1,600 children have competed.
Bilbrough does not see Hands Up as primarily teaching organization; rather, its main goal is to provide a creative outlet for children in Palestine. “There are many, many highly talented Palestinian teachers, especially in Gaza, who are doing amazing things with theater,” says Bilbrough. Hands Up supports those teachers by reinforcing their work.
Benefits for students and teachers
Beyond improving the students’ English and communication skills, Hands Up tries to break through the isolation of Palestinian students by connecting them with people around the world. “Our goal is to give young people a voice to tell their stories to people outside of Palestine. And their plays have been seen by people all over the world on our YouTube channel.” To date, their productions have attracted more than 125,000 views.
Inas Shurrab is an UNRWA teacher whose classes have participated in The Hands Up Project. One clear benefit: She and her students were given an all-expenses-paid trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank—their first time outside of Gaza. They visited holy and historical places—as well as aggressive policing measures by the Israeli army.
“Seeing Jerusalem for the first time was like living a wonderful dream from which you don't want to wake up,” she recalls. “I felt like I belonged to that place. Jerusalem lives within all Palestinians! We saw Israeli soldiers at every entry and gate, and I wished to tell them, ‘it's not your place. Why are you here?’ On our way back to Gaza, the soldiers stopped our bus and were so rude to us and to the driver. They made us wait for about an hour, then ordered us to go back and take another road.”
Saja Sabbah, another UNRWA teacher, adds that Hands Up incentivizes students to improve their English so they can participate in the competition. “Preparing ourselves to compete helps me develop a close relationship with the students,” observes Sabbah. “Everyone contributes.” Sabbah’s students worked on the story of a girl who was shot by the Israeli army in one of the wars on Gaza. The girl lost her leg and hated her new life so much she wanted to stop going to school. But her family and friends encouraged her to continue, facing life with one leg. The play didn’t win, but the students are enthusiastic about trying again.
Even students who aren’t able to travel, however, get global exposure. The now perform their plays via Zoom for conferences as far-flung as Turkey, Croatia and Chile—sometimes to large audiences of around 3,000.
Inspiration is two-way
Bilbrough and his volunteers say they are deeply affected by the project as well. In the first year’s competition, the play that came in third was called “Live Your Life,” he recalls.
“It’s one of my favorite plays created by the Palestinian kids,” Bilbrough explains. “It tells the story of two daughters who dream about what they want to be when they are adults. But their mother just wanted them to get married and have kids. The plot is very real and say so much about their daily struggles.”
After the students performed the play via Zoom for a conference in Croatia, the girls had the opportunity to talk to the audience. “It was very moving,” recalls Bilbrough. “One of the girls said very sadly, ‘The message of the play is this: Listen to your children. Don't let traditionalists get in the way. Let them try to accomplish their dreams and support them in that.’ How very empowering that was for a 14-year-old girl to say that to an audience of teachers!”
Bilbrough has faced many challenges in starting and running Hands Up. “One of the big challenges was actually getting into Gaza,” he explains. “There was a lot of people telling us it wouldn’t be impossible for me to go to Gaza, and that even if I could, it would be dangerous. I didn’t believe any of that. And I was right about the latter. Gaza is a very welcoming place, a very hospitable place, perhaps one of the most hospitable places I’ve been in in my life.”
It has indeed been difficult for Bilbrough to get into Gaza, however. Nonetheless, he has been able to enter 10 times in the past three years.
Another big challenge is getting Palestinians out of Gaza to perform their plays in the West Bank or the UK. When they first started applying for permits for people to leave, they were always turned down. “We are very grateful for the support of the British Council, which helped us overcome Israel’s opposition. It’s so important for Palestinians from Gaza to meet their people in the West Bank and vice versa.”
A message to the world
Bilbrough says this about Palestine and Palestinians to anyone who will listen: “Try and get to know the people, because there is an image that is portrayed in the media that is very, very different from the reality. It’s been a real privilege and an honor for me to get to know so many Palestinians; I’m very proud to call them my friends. They are amazing people: creative, hospitable, kind and lovers of life.”
And here is what I, the writer of this story, want to say back: Being under occupation in an isolated place makes us feel like we are alone in this big world. Having such projects like Hands Up and We Are Not Numbers makes us feel connected and hopeful. The support of people around the world strengthens our cause and our confidence.