Gaza schoolgirl troupe receives hero’s welcome after British debut
LONDON - “It was a dream we never imagined would happen but it did,” Batool Sagher said surrounded by the four other members of the all-female Khan Younis troupe and Amal Mukhairez, the girls’ teacher and mentor.
In April the girls performed their debut play “Inner Thoughts” before a full house at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and a secondary school in Oxford, their first occasion to travel abroad.
The play, created and co-written by Sagher, Rawan el-Alwai, Dania Dahlan, Salma Shammout and Zaheya Arafa, received thunderous applause as the girls opened alongside Mark Thomas, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada from the Jenin Comedy Club. On their return to Gaza, the girls received a hero’s welcome and were dubbed Gaza’s “youth ambassadors.”
The opportunity to perform was made possible through a playwriting competition by the Hands Up Project (THUP). The Britain-registered charity uses technology to enable Syrian refugees in Jordan and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to connect with remote teachers and theatre activities normally inaccessible to them.
Founder Nick Bilbrough and the girls worked closely for the last year. He praised them for their enthusiasm and maturity, which he said was beyond anything THUP volunteers had previously encountered.
Out of 88 video entries submitted largely by UNRWA school pupils, the girls at Khan Younis prep school came in first.
“Luckily I wasn’t one of the judges” Bilbrough joked, commenting on the difficulties the judges faced when narrowing their choices to a single winner. The panel featured celebrities such as Alexei Sayle and John Altman.
The play’s theme was not restricted to Israeli occupation, war and siege. “We chose to tell a single story that drew inspiration from our life experiences,” Rawan Wael said.
The girls chose universally familiar themes as the play made apparent with “love the person you are and make a difference” being dominant.
The play follows the story of an unsatisfied young girl, played by Arafa, who succumbs to the trappings of beauty, wealth and popularity but is in for a rude awakening that reminds her to be thankful for what life has bestowed.
Along the way, she meets people from all walks of life: the rich, the poor, those in ill-health and those living with lifelong impairments. The refugee was incorporated “as a universal struggle, whether in Palestine, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere,” Sagher said.
“I was delighted to play the lead mostly because I had the chance to read the audience and their responses,” Arafa said. “Second, it teaches an all-important important lesson to accept ourselves and others for who they are.”
She described Bilbrough as a father and a friend, who alongside Mukhairez, “supported us along every step of our journey.”
“We performed another play that Nick wrote called ‘the screen,’” Danya Afif said. “It was streamed to various countries, Finland, Chile and London.”
The initiative, Bilbrough explained by phone from his home, is part of the 4-year online language teaching programme sustained through a large pool of internationally scattered volunteers.
Using storytelling and theatre, they provide education to 500 children a week. The work with Khan Younis and Syrians in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari camp was described by Bilbrough as the project’s focal point.
Smiles quickly spread as the girls shared memories of their trip in chatting via Zoom. “We never felt like strangers to the city. In London everyone is treated as an individual,” Salma Ziad said.
Others said practising English with native speakers was what they enjoyed most.
“Palestinian society really values children,” Bilbrough said, “particularly in classrooms.”
Performance culture is nurtured both inside and outside classrooms, equipping young performers with the communicative tools and unbreakable confidence, in spite of the 12 wars waged by Israel against Gaza. While politics has always stood in the way of Palestinian education, the pupils of Khan Younis school are defying the odds.
“Their personalities are strong, and through the drama work and the meetings, interactions and intercultural exchanges, they have broken through isolation they were confined to. After their trip and successes, you feel that feeling of injustice has been alleviated,” Mukhairez said.
Speaking about the reality of life in the Gaza Strip, Wael expressed that from birth Palestinians are denied choices others around the world have. “We were born into this and have to adapt. We live under siege but we have talents and capabilities no different to yours,” Wael explained.
“However, the reality is that the sadness and patience we experience was the springboard that allowed to transmit our voice.”
As observed by Mukhairez during their outing to an ice rink, the trip allowed the girls to learn to be children again.
The welcome the troupe received at home from local officials and UNRWA Director of Operations Matthias Schmale reminded them of the weight of the responsibility they carry, even as children.
“While media coverage of Gaza’s occupation skews the reality we live, we will represent the strength Gaza is known for,” Shammout said.
The noise they generated acquired them a high-ranking fan, the Palestinian minister of education, Sabri Saidam, who will assist THUP in expanding its efforts, hoping for the girls and other runners-up from the competition to perform their plays.
“This is only the beginning” Sagher and some of the others said.