Palestine Story 31: Freedom Theatre
The people of Jenin Refugee Camp are among those who have seen the worst of both the first and second intifadas. Surrounded by death and devastation, the children of the camp have struggled with deeply held trauma and deprivation from a normal childhood.
They have said there is one thing that keeps them from taking their anger and frustration to the streets. An initiative started by an Israeli woman who believed that the wellbeing of children came before any principles guiding conflict.
She first came to Jenin in 1989 and, met with suspicion by those living there, worked tirelessly to gain their trust. She began by working with the women of the camp on providing children with community centers within homes.
This was a time of curfews. A time when most children had fathers and brothers in jails and their mothers were out struggling to put food on the table. These centers provided a vital point of stability in their lives.
They used arts and crafts as a way to help children express themselves creatively while addressing the trauma and depression resulting from witnessing the effects of occupation and violence. Children blossomed at the centers and they expanded steadily.
In 1993, Arna Mer Khamis was awarded an Alternative Nobel Prize. She used the money to build a small theatre in the camp and began putting on productions.
Seven years after her death in 1995, Arna's son, a well known Israeli/Palestinian actor, came back to Jenin. The theatre his mother built had been destroyed in 2002 and most of the original actors were either imprisoned or had died as militants.
Juliano rebuilt the theatre and stayed on as general and artistic director. Now the theatre plays to packed out audiences and is steadily taking on more actors and actresses.
The theatre teaches and trains them in acting. The productions themselves are larger than life using sophisticated lighting and stage management.
Many have found relief in the drama therapy sessions provided through the theatre, finally finding ways to come to terms with what they have been through.
Those who participate in The Freedom Theatre say it is their lifeline. Without it, they too would be in prisons or on their way. Even worse, they could be dead.