The sign above the door reads al-Masrah al-Hurriyya—the Freedom Theatre. Inside, a tall, powerfully built man dressed in all black is shepherding an excited throng of at least 50 children, aged nine to 13, onto the tiered risers that serve as the theatre’s makeshift gallery. Another cluster of kids is elbowing its way onto the stage. More are darting around at the back, hollering at each other, their hands covered in watercolour. The scene is chaotic.
The man is Juliano Mer-Khamis, a well-known actor and film director, and co-founder of the theatre—in its latest incarnation. And with a few gentle commands from his booming voice, order is soon restored to the room. Lights dim. The audience of children and a few guests hushes as an interpretive dance lesson commences on stage. Self-conscious young girls fi dget timidly as they begin to sway to the music.
This entire place seems like a stage. A dusty, former United Nations warehouse. A famous Israeli filmmaker. A gaggle of Palestinian kids. A refugee camp that has known some of the most tragic moments in the history of a tragic conflict.
It’s December 2006, and this is Jenin, a refugee camp in the north of the West Bank, and the thousands of children who live here have very little to expect in life. The goal of the Freedom Theatre is to use art as a model for social change, to empower the children of Jenin to envision the possibilities beyond the environment of the camp, so that they can actually transform that environment into one of hope. In other words, to pursue freedom in a place where it is evidently impossible to find.
It was just a little more than five years ago, in April 2002, that Jenin Refugee Camp engaged the world’s attention. A twoweek Israeli military incursion, met with fi erce Palestinian resistance, left much of the camp completely destroyed. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 52 Palestinians, including 22 civilians, were killed, as were 23 Israeli soldiers. As documented by HRW, atrocities committed by the Israeli army—using civilians as human shields, bulldozers razing homes with people in them—have horribly scarred the community. The attack rendered more than 4,000 refugees homeless, and the damage to private and public property and infrastruc-ture in the camp was estimated at $46.7 million.
But the story of the Freedom Theatre precedes this destructive episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1987, 58-yearold Jewish-Israeli peace activist Arna Mer-Khamis founded “Care and Learning,” an organization that sent volunteers to Jenin to supplement Palestinian education. In a place where the streets were so narrow that a child could extend both arms and touch the concrete walls of the homes on either side, there was very little room for creativity and almost no place for hope. By 1993, the project had over 1,500 camp children enrolled in artistic activities. Mer-Khamis was awarded the 1993 Alternative Peace Prize. She used the funds from the prize to open a children’s theatre in Jenin. Her son Juliano captured this success story—as well the later tragedies—in a 2004 documentary titled Arna’s Children.
“The child under military occupation is affected psychologically, emotionally and academically,” Mer-Khamis says in the film. “The socialization of the child is the most basic thing in its life; if you see children only as individuals, in fact you can be indirectly deepening their problems.”
In 1995, Mer-Khamis succumbed to a long battle with cancer, and the Care and Learning project fell into decay. Arna’s children— the refugee kids in the camp—took disparate paths to adulthood, as the film exposes, and some of them even became militant resistors to the Israeli occupation. One child, Yussef, carried out a suicide attack in the Israeli town of Hadera in 2001. Another, Ashraf, died fighting the Israeli invasion of Jenin in 2002.
During the invasion and rebuilding process following the destruction of the camp, Juliano and several foreign volunteers returned to the camp often, and together with some of the local Palestinian leaders they decided to re-open the children’s theatre. By the spring of 2006, they had the bare minimum of funds—donated from private contributors from Europe and the U.S., and banked from the sales ofArna’s Children—and space to open the Freedom Theatre.
“Childhood is like a performing art,” says Yonatan, a young actor and one of the Israeli volunteers here. “It needs a freedom to express itself. Many of the children in Jenin are deeply disturbed, which affects their ability to work together, to communicate, and to learn discipline. Drama teaches them space, and space is important for conceptualizing expressions of freedom.”
In Jenin, it is difficult to imagine free space anywhere. The refugee camp, with its history of violence and despair, presents a challenging marketplace for creativity and enthusiasm. There are nearly 16,000 residents of Jenin refugee camp living on roughly a square kilometre of land; 42 percent, or 6,600, are children under the age of 15. Most of the camp’s inhabitants—descendents of Palestinians from the region that is now the Israeli city of Haifa, who fled the wars of 1948 and 1967—have never left the environs of the camp. Since the Intifada began in 2000, most have been restricted, because of their status as refugees, from crossing Israeli military checkpoints even within the West Bank.
“The children have everything they need to live but the occupation prevents it,” notes Fadi, a Palestinian volunteer and a resident of the camp. We’re sitting in what will soon become the Ahmad el-Khatib computer centre in a wing of the Freedom Theatre complex (in addition to theatre and dance, the Freedom Theatre also teaches children drawing and painting, and computer training). El-Khatib was 12 years old when he was killed by an Israeli soldier in a crossfire with Palestinian fighters in 2005. The boy’s organs were donated and went to Israeli recipients. This symbolic connection between Israelis and Palestinians seems to Fadi not an irony, but a necessity. “Here we know that we have to work together to have freedom.”
Across a dusty courtyard we visit a classroom where about two dozen Palestinian children are cheerily painting watercolours. Samples of their work layer the walls around them. The theme of this art project is “Do Not Forget Lebanon 2006,” in reference to the Israel-Hezbollah war that summer. The images are not flowery: tanks, fighter jets, burning houses, and lots of olive trees—shared symbols between Jenin and Lebanon. The images they create connect these Palestinian children to those in Lebanon through common metaphors of war, destruction and commemoration. The paintings—the free expressions that Juliano and the others here are keen to nurture—will soon travel as an exhibit to other Palestinian towns, as well as to Israel, Europe and Australia.
“We are political,” says Yonatan of the Israeli volunteers in the camp. “We don’t hide from it. We have no political affiliations, with Israel or Palestine, except that we are against the occupation. We have a solidarity with people opposing the occupation. That’s the politics of this whole project.”
He continues: “We train kids to be leaders of the resistance.” Even violent resistance? “We hope not, and through empowering their creativity we hope they will have other options, but we understand when they [are violent]. What would you do under occupation?”
His words dangle in the sandy air as I return to the main theatre, where under Juliano’s watchful eye, aspiring young performers are learning to block, in preparation for two plays they will begin to work on in the summer, Jenin Camp, a local production, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a favourite of the volunteers here.
Under occupation, an Israeli political activist and her Palestinian friends started a theatre in a destitute refugee camp. Under occupation, Palestinian militants fought Israeli soldiers in a battle that saw the destruction of that camp and the loss of many lives. And now, in an environment that has otherwise changed very little in 40 years, these Israelis and Palestinians are trying to start a new resistance to occupation, transforming a new generation of trauma into one of hope.