“Every child has the right to a safe space”: Opportunities to play and grow through circus skills in the West Bank

The Palestinian Circus School, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s partner in the West Bank, advocates for the rights of Palestinian children with learning disabilities and promotes their full participation in public life. We spoke to Nayef Abdalla, a trainer at the circus school, who is working to bring circus skills and training to more than 300 children and young people across the West Bank.

How long you have been working at the Palestinian Circus School?

I have been working at the Palestinian Circus School for 13 years. My decision to be part of the circus school stems from my own upbringing. Like many Palestinian children who grew up during the Second Intifada, we were deprived of our childhood.

We did not have a safe place to play and grow. I grew up in Al Far’a refugee camp, in the northwest of the West Bank. Children in refugee camps are challenged to protect their right to play and enjoy their childhood. Refugee camps, in general, are densely populated and the streets are narrow and lack safe spaces for children to play and grow. 

What is the importance of the trainings and their impact on the children?

Circus training is very important. The trainings do not only enhance children’s mental and physical wellbeing, but also enrich their social development. Every child has the right to have a safe space, we also call it a “free space” where they can jump, play, learn and acquire new skills. Children at the circus school discover their capabilities, their bodies, and their personality traits. We witness the development of children throughout our sessions. Through our work, we aim to build a happy, confident generation and save their childhood. 

The Palestinian Circus School teaches circus skills to children and youth of different ages and from different backgrounds – some come from the city, and others from the villages and the refugee camps. We work with different groups in the country including in Ramallah, Birzeit, Al Jalazon refugee camp, Al Fara refugee camp and Jenin. We also teach people with disabilities from Star Mountain Rehabilitation Centre and girls at the Jenin Girl’s Rehabilitation Centre.

Can you tell us more about your work with children with disabilities?

Children with disabilities in Palestine also suffer from the lack of resources and spaces for them to grow and learn. We started working with children with disabilities five years ago and they have enriched our experience. The children eagerly wait for the weekly circus training. Their development and eagerness were noticeable. They were able to perform in front of their parents and teachers within a year. I remember in one of the performances, one of the parents was crying because he felt the happiness of his child.

I understand the importance of what I am doing from the feedback and the love we receive from the children. I was deeply touched when the parents of Mohamed, a 12-year-old with an intellectual (learning) disability, told me that he takes the diablo with him to bed. Through the diablo, he was able to communicate his needs and ask for strings whenever his strings break. As a trainer this is my reward, and this is what drives me and my colleagues to give more despite the challenges.

Can you share some of the challenges that you face?

One challenge is our restricted freedom of movement. We are not able to provide our circus training for children or the youth in Jerusalem, especially in these difficult times where children are exposed to excessive use of force and forced expulsion from their homes. We feel the need to be present and provide our services in Jerusalem, but we do not have permits. We train some trainers from Jerusalem in the West Bank in order to deliver these circus skills to children in Jerusalem, but we don’t have the means to supervise and observe these exercises and performances. 

I hope we will be able one day to open a branch of the Palestinian Circus School in every Palestinian city, village, and refugee camp and reach out to every child. I hope children will be able to enjoy their childhood despite the occupation.

You can support this work and our vital programmes in the West Bank by making a donation to MAP today.

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