Anthony Robinson is the author of the Refugee Diaries series, and Street Children (Frances Lincoln). Annemarie Young is co-author with Michael Rosen of Who are Refugees and Migrants? What Makes People Leave Their Homes? And Other Big Questions (Wayland) which was shortlisted for the School Library Association’s Information Book Award in 2017. This is one of a series for young adults which explores a number of other important questions including What is Humanism?, What is Right and Wrong? and What is Politics? due in Autumn 2019.
Young Palestinians Speak, co-written by Anthony Robinson and Annemarie Young, describes a more personal journey to find out about the lives of some children and teenagers who in many ways are no different from any other young people, but who are growing up experiencing life under occupation.
Why did we write this book? (Anthony)
We write books which give young people a chance to be heard. Too often children and young people are ignored. Being heard means you matter and we all want to matter, don’t we? To this end we have written, the Refugee Diaries series, Street Children and now Young Palestinians Speak: Living Under Occupation. This book is about many things. Hopefully, the title sparks an interest in the topic. It may prompt the reader to ask questions: who, where, why or what?
The book is also the end result of a questioning process, which began in 2011 with Why is there so little information available on young Palestinians’ daily lives under Israeli occupation? Closely followed by What can we do about it? We decided we could go to occupied Palestine and see for ourselves what daily life was like and ask young people there to tell us about their experiences, so we could put their own words into a book to inform others.
We had no real idea where this journey would take us. However, our need to cross borders, be there and report back had always stood us in good stead with past projects. We set off into the largely unknown. We made two research trips and returned a third time to launch the book in 2017. These were all, especially the first two, physically and emotionally bruising trips. We visited nine places in all, from Jerusalem to Nablus and Jenin. We also organised, through *The Tamer Institute for Community Education, two video conferences with children in Gaza.(http://www.arabchildrensliterature.com/directory/organisations/tamer-institute-community-education)
We found the occupation everywhere: oppressive and menacing. Can you imagine living in your own country and not being able to move about freely? Having heavily armed security on the streets, daily obstacles to work and education, being denied access to family members? Where you are, in fact, not welcome, where on a daily basis your future is being taken out of your hands. This is the experience of Palestinian young people. This is what we found.
How did we do it?
Other questions might now present themselves. How did you choose the children and how did you get them to speak to you?
We were given introductions and support by the Tamer. We found the children burning to speak, to be heard outside their deeply felt isolation. We also found the children’s facility with English a surprise. We didn’t often have need of interpreters, except for the younger ones.
The interviews themselves we conducted in as relaxed and conversational a way as possible. Even though we had prepared questions, the children would run with what was on their minds, with very little prompting. This is what we wanted. This is what the book contains.
Taking the book back (Annemarie, from travel diary)
We returned to launch the book in April 2017. We chose to do this because we wanted to show those involved what they had made possible. It’s also true that places like Palestine are perfect laboratories for academic research or other career opportunities, and the people there often feel exploited. We wanted to show the people we had interviewed that we had not just ridden into town, scooped up data and then left without a backward glance.
We launched the book in Jerusalem and in Ramallah. Both these events were well-received and well-supported. However, the most rewarding and nourishing part of the trip was taking the book to Nablus, Hebron and Jenin to show to those who had helped us and had taken part in the project.
We weren’t allowed back into the Cordoba school, where we’d talked to children last time – the Israeli government had imposed more restrictions since then – instead we met children and teachers from the school at the Hebron Youth Development Centre, along with staff and other students from the Centre. And the head of the Ministry of Education for Hebron was also there.
The reception we got was very moving. It was very humbling how much people appreciated our intention to help get young Palestinians’ voices heard. The Tamer Co-Ordinator gave a detailed summary of the book – in Arabic, translated for us by our guide and friend, Samar. Hearing the Co-Ordinator’s interpretation of what the book is about was what moved me first. It was very instructive to hear how these Palestinians saw it. One of the things that stood out was that the Co-Ordinator – and others later – saw a contrast between our take and much of what has been written about Palestinian children in particular, which has tended to focus on poverty and victimhood. We have given the context of their day to day lives, as well as their stories, and they were very happy with this. We had shown Palestinian young people to be like any others. It’s only the circumstances of their lives that are so different.
Our presentation here was in quite a large auditorium, filled with children and adults, all gathered together by Ala from Tamer. There was a particular group of children in the front row – aged around eleven to thirteen, all clutching photocopies of the Nablus section of the book. They were all from the Pioneers School in Nablus.
Their teacher told us they focus on critical thinking. This was evident in the questions the children asked, in good English. They were detailed and probing. They asked us if we thought the book would change anything, and if so, how. Now there’s a question. We said we hoped it would better inform those who read it. And one boy asked us if we’d written the book ‘to help Palestine or to make money’! His parents, sitting further back, were highly mortified by this, but Anthony’s amused response helped. All three came up to us afterwards, and the boy, Mahdi, gave us his full list of 13(!) questions to show that he really thinks we wrote the book to help Palestine and not to make money.
Next, we drove to Jenin, for once unhampered by traffic jams, and through empty checkpoints. We joined a group at the Community Library and Tamer Activity Centre in Jenin. We were just one part of a series of presentations highlighting the work of the Centre over the past months. The work they do is incredibly impressive. When we were first there, we watched an animation workshop, and on this second visit we saw four films made by children: wonderfully creative – funny, or moving, or both.
After so much, we were sad to leave Palestine. It was wonderful to see again the people we’d met on our previous visits, and to meet new people who are committed to doing what they can for the Palestinians. Our time there will stay with us, and we shall return.
This is a guest blog from Anthony Robinson and Annemarie Young and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.