TOGETHER AS ONE: Children deliver a message of hope
Children from around the world overcome wars, walls and language barriers to deliver a message of hope
By Katy Weitz
A unique show took place today at St Louise’s Comprehensive College in Belfast featuring children from all over the world including Gaza, the Czech Republic, Russia, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan and Thailand.
For the first time these children shared a stage to perform two plays, give a dance recital and sing, communicating with one voice the importance of taking care of the environment.
The children from Gaza and the Czech Republic had flown to Belfast for a week-long visit with The Hands Up Project, a British charity that connects Palestinian children with classes all over the world.
The Hands Up Project specialises in ‘remote theatre’ — performing plays through Zoom — and encourages students to write and act in their own plays in English, connecting with students from 30 countries online.
But today Rahaf Alkafarna, 15, Malak Alkafarna, 14 and Yara Al Sabe, 13, from Gaza and Magdalena Zrostlikova, 12, and Julie Linderova, 13, from the Czech Republic had the chance to perform their play ‘Welcome to Earth’ to a real audience in a packed hall of 100 students, teachers and school governors. And the reception was rapturous, with a spontaneous standing ovation at the end.
For the girls from Gaza, living under a 15-year illegal Israeli blockade and subjected to repeated bombing assaults, it was an emotional experience, a chance to be seen and heard by the outside world.
‘Today is the best day in my life because today I sent my message to the whole world,’ said Rahaf. ‘I am Palestinian. I can achieve my dream. Nobody can stop me. Nobody!’
Just getting the children and their teachers out of the Gaza strip was itself a colossal undertaking, fraught with difficulties. At one stage, when it looked like the visas wouldn’t arrive in time, Hands Up founder Nick Bilbrough, believed the event would have to be postponed.
At the last minute the visas were released just in time to allow the group to leave Gaza.
They have enjoyed a warm welcome from their host families, the staff and pupils at St Louise’s as well as several other schools including St Kevin’s, Coláiste Feirste, All Saints College and Glengormley High. Over the last week they have taken part in art classes, enjoyed visits to the Titanic museum, the beach, castle and marvelled at the rich, green countryside.
‘Belfast is heaven on earth,’ said Malak, wide-eyed. ‘The people are so friendly here it feels as if you are at home and the nature here is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this — trees, flowers, mountains. Things are bad in Gaza. Coming here was like going from a dark place into shining light. Every moment is a joy.’
‘I feel like I’m in a dream,’ said Yara. ‘It’s so hard to achieve but the Palestinian kids never give up.’
For Yara, her moment in the spotlight was bittersweet: ‘I feel like I’m proud of myself and I wanted to cry. I cried because I wanted my family to see me.’
Today, two million Gazans are trapped inside what some describe as ‘the world’s largest open prison’ with movement restricted to just the small strip of land 25 miles long. Infrastructure has been destroyed by decades of deprivation, with extreme shortages of electricity, water and medicine.
Most Gazans are refugees from other parts of Palestine, but they are cut off from these towns and villages by miles of 7-metre high walls, topped with sensors, remote control machine guns and barbed wire. For Rahaf, Yara and Malak, just being able to pass through the West Bank to reach Jordan was a chance to feel connected to their homeland.
Malak says their experience in Belfast has been like living ‘a whole new life in one week.’ She has resolved to return one day to study medicine so that she can become a surgeon ‘to help the people from my homeland.’
Drama is not taught in Gazan schools so having an opportunity to perform is a rare experience. Gazan teacher Haneen Jadallah says it allows the children to feel confident and resilient, despite the hard circumstances they have endured. It is also a chance to contribute to a challenging world and serves as a way of self-identification and self-celebration.
‘It’s a sort of healing,’ she added.
The second play — I Will Wait Until They Open the Gate — was written by refugee children in Gaza as part of The Hands Up project, and today it was performed by a group of six refugee children, now students at St Louise’s, who had all suffered displacement and difficult childhoods.
Shano Kanabi, 14, from Kurdistan, had a particularly harrowing experience as her family attempted to flee in 2015 but were detained in a Turkish refugee camp where they were locked in a single room for 24 hours a day. When asked what it meant to her to be able to perform in the school, she broke down, saying she could never have imagined being here.
‘Since I was eight years old this was my dream. I want to thank St Louise’s. I am really happy to be in this school. I am really proud to be in this school and I want to thank all the teachers. Education is so good here. If I was in my country now I would have stayed at my home and do work, I wouldn’t go to school.’
Sophie Cocault, the group’s English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher, said it had meant a huge amount for these children to feel a valued part of the school.
‘Taking part in this production, they had agency,’ she said. ‘It is giving them a voice. They don’t always get heard because they don’t have the confidence with English but they have so much to contribute.’
The dramatic performances were illustrated by a powerful contemporary dance show from seven students of St Louise’s Dance Department which evoked the turmoil and catastrophic consequences of a changing climate, with a final message of hope and optimism in the choir’s moving rendition of Wonderful World.
It was an extraordinary show of unity by children from different parts of the globe who overcame walls, wars and language barriers to speak for the first time with one voice.
St Louise’s teacher Paul Woods, a member of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) which helped organise the visit, said: ‘We feel the voices of Palestinian people are not being heard. Their stories, their experiences are not being heard in the West. They’re being drowned out by other narratives.’
Drawing all the elements of the show together was director Rachel Haughey of the Youth Production Network who said it was an honour to work with all the students and their teachers.
‘Everyone here has been through a huge personal journey to even be here physically,’ she said. ‘And also a personal journey to stand up and speak out, especially when it’s not your own language.’
Nick Bilbrough said the whole trip had been ‘amazing’ and meant so much to the children who had never left the Gaza strip before: ‘We’ve had such a warm welcome from everyone we’ve met here. It’s just been wonderful.’
The Hands Up Project is a charity which relies on donations for their important work. They still have some way to go to cover the costs of the trip. To support their work please visit their JustGiving page: