Sunday, July 11, 2010

Week 1: Workshop in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza

Voices Beyond Walls and Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE) began its first participatory digital media and storytelling workshop in the UNRWA Woman’s center in Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza from July 4 – 25, 2010.

The three-week workshop is being conducted with five local staff members from the woman’s center and 5-6 volunteers (from youth organizations like Tamer and Sharek), all of whom participated in the Training of Trainers (ToT) course previously conducted by Voices Beyond Walls at the Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy from June 28-30, 2010. The workshop participants include 25 children (boy and girls aged 10-15) from Jabaliya camp.

Another “comparison group” of 25 children are participating in a Dabke (traditional Palestinian dance) workshop conducted in parallel at the center, as part of the pilot research study led by Dr. Nitin Sawhney, examining the role of interventions supporting participatory media, creative expression, and civic engagement among marginalized children undergoing conditions of protracted conflict.

Pre-workshop Planning and Preliminary Focus Group Evaluations

On July 3rd, one day before the workshops began, we met with the center staff in Jabaliya camp to review all workshop logistics, working guidelines and preparations. We then conducted two preliminary focus group sessions with a small group of six mothers and eight children who planned to participate in the workshop.

We discussed the key issues of critical concern among mothers about the lives of their children in the camp including psychosocial trauma from the war, ongoing political conflict, blockade and everyday concerns regarding the frequent power outages, health, safety and attitudes/behaviors of children at home and in the community. We discussed their hopes and expectations, evidence of creative engagement, and media exposure among their children. The mothers were more than willing to discuss a wide range of issues and appreciated our interest in better understanding these aspects of their lives.

We then probed the group of children (two boys and six girls aged 12-15) about these issues through an exploratory exercise of having them draw their hands on a sheet of paper and noting their background information (name, age, siblings etc) and drawing out a sample daily diary of their everyday lives; this provided some background information on their routines, media consumption patterns, socialization, family life, and sleep, much of it apparently shaped by the nature of power cuts experienced on any given day.

Inevitably, socializing with friends and family through face-to-face and online means constituted an important part of their lives, at least during the summer. When asked about a significant moment in their life over the past year, most discussed effects of the war, personal loss or challenging events at school. As for problems they faced nearly all mentioned power cuts and political situation (particularly factional fighting) as primary issues. Interestingly, children with greater media usage patterns and socialization seemed more open and optimistic – yet this remains anecdotal evidence at this early stage.

The focus groups helped us develop a more detailed questionnaire and approach which we hoped to administer among all children participating in the workshop the following day. 

Day 1: Focus Group Evaluations and Introduction to Photography

We began the day with ice-breakers conducted by local trainers, which energized the group of 25 children who came to attend the first day of the workshop. They later watched 2-3 short films including Nablus Tragedy, Memories of Nakba and the Pole (the funny short made in our ToT). The children especially loved the Pole, given its simple message of civic action to keep streets clean.

Maha and Asmaa worked hard to translate the evaluation questionnaire (to Arabic) in time for our focus group sessions. We had at least two facilitators each pair up with a group of 5 children to interview and capture their responses to the questionnaire. The hand drawing exercise worked really well and the daily diary revealed a great deal, though we had to probe some children harder to be more expressive about their opinions. Some questions could be framed better and it would have been helpful to conduct trainings with our evaluators to pose the questions better. All focus groups went well, with reams of hand-written responses and drawings produced by children.

After some home-made pizza at the center we had Jehad from Tamer lead the photo session, which went quite well. He previously had some children take a few shots with his camera over lunch and discussed them, along with youth photos from previous workshops in Jerusalem for review. The children engaged in amazingly critical discussions of photo aesthetics and narratives in the shots. I was quite impressed with their aptitude and they were no longer shy to be expressive.

Our digital cameras arrived just in time (donated by Tamer and Sharek) to begin hands-on photo sessions in groups; with 30 minutes of outdoor shooting, they managed to incorporate many of their ideas from the photo review session. We had an informal discussion in the courtyard about their experience, which seemed both fun and productive. The best part about our first day into the workshop was the genuine enthusiasm and attitude of all the children and trainers involved.

Day 2: Sensing and Mapping Everyday Spaces

We started with a warm-up among the children as usual and quickly moved into focus groups to complete our hopes and expectations evaluation. Shortly thereafter we conducted a photo review of a selection of the children’s work from the previous day, which went very well.

Afterwards Nasser (from EJE) lead a great session on smells, tastes and perceptions by having two children and one trainer blind-folded and passing around various spices and materials; this turned out to be a really fun activity and quite hilarious for all. This lead into each group conducting a mapping exercise within different rooms in the center and presenting their maps after lunch. It was too hot to send children out for fieldwork, so we decided to do some other exercises indoors (despite ongoing power cuts).

We then conducted a session on the rights and responsibilities of children as young journalists in training. Here the children came up with a set of rules and regulations that they would place on their own "press pass". Finally, we watched 2 video shorts "Al Hakawati" (the storyteller) and “Intensive Care Unit” (which they liked most) to prepare them visually for their neighborhood mapping fieldwork the following day.

The first 2 days have been long and tiring for all participants and trainers, but the following days will be more hands-on and fun.

Day 3: Neighborhood Mapping in Groups

Today's workshop was probably the most enjoyable as the teams had a chance to do some fieldwork to develop neighborhood reportage.
We started with a warm-up as usual; I'm amazed to see how many unusual ice-breakers our Jabaliya trainers continue to come up with. Today was the "ship and the lighthouse" - where we gathered in a circle in pairs with one sitting and the other behind, as the "lighthouse" winked to call out someone else in the circle. Hard to describe but quite fun once you get the hang of it.

We then broke out into our teams, this time rearranging the trainers into stable pairs and balancing out the boys/girls and dominant children a bit more, to plan our mapping fieldwork. The center managed to create "press badges" for our young journalists in training as they preferred to call themselves. The badges had the rules and responsibilities that they crafted the day before, on the back.

The 5 groups went out for their neighborhood mapping trips. I "shadowed" one group that decided to examine the human rights situation in their camp through mapping. They met with the PCHR and Mazen offices and interviewed their staff. I was quite impressed with their interview skills and team coordination while some wrote summaries and others photographed. Fortunately, one of the staff at Mazen took them out to meet a family whose home had been bombed during the siege in Jan 2008.
We met the father who lost his right hand and one of his children, while another suffered shrapnel wounds. I only learned about all this as the interview progressed and still taken aback by the warmth and hospitality of the whole family, who insisted on serving tea. The young group conducted their interview tactfully and professionally to the point where I joked with the Mazen staff member that they may make for good recruits in this organization.

While we got back to the center, other groups were already preparing their maps on large sheets; one involved a narrative about a water pollution and a filtration facility near the camp, while another took a field-trip to a Bedouin village nearby. They presented their maps to the groups by the end of the day, which went quite well.

Groups began trying the VideoStudio software in their groups to sequence their photography; some did a quick rough-cut but others got distracted by the software and its playful special effects (mostly due to their trainers). I tried to focus the groups back on the narrative of their neighborhood trips and challenged them to create something they might feature as reportage on Al-Jazeera. Hopefully, their ideas will get more imaginative once we've done more drama and story-writing exercises next week.

Day 4: The Silent Beauty of Amna’s Visual Senses

This was a challenging day for all; we started out fine with the groups going out to their sites to complete their neighborhood narratives.

Roger Hill, a filmmaker from San Francisco who just arrived in Gaza, joined my previous group (doing the human rights story), while I shadowed another one examining special needs children in the camp. We visited a center that introduced us to a young girl Amna who is hearing-impaired. The group managed to conduct an interview with her through a sign translator, which went really well and then proceeded to give her a digital camera to shoot some photos with them to share a part of her world through the language of photography; Amna was really wonderful and the children took a liking to her right away. I asked the children to image a silent world as we walked along with Amna in the busy noisy streets of the camp.

Roger later commented that Amna’s photos were far more engaging; the children in this group plan to work her photos into their narrative (with a silent sound track on her world). They even shot some photos of shadows of their hands doing sign language to add to their montage.

This experience left me to think that we could organize a small workshop with our young Jabaliya team working with some special needs children on joint photo narratives where one does the photo and the other the soundscape, perceiving each differently through their own senses.

That afternoon the children continued to work on their first photomontage using the editing software, despite many frustrating challenges due to power-outages, viruses on laptops, and a steep learning curve to master the technical aspects of the tool without much training. The day took a toll on most of us as we strove to find better ways to tackle such issues going forward.

Day 5: Psychodrama and Screenings of Photomontage

Our final day of the first week in the workshop ended better than expected, after all the chaos and frustration of the previous day.

We managed to address most of the challenges plaguing us over the week regarding computers and pacing of the sessions, though power cuts and trainers out sick are hard to deal with easily.

We started the day with an excellent two hour psychodrama session led by Jehan, a drama trainer from Tamer, who had attended our ToT in Gaza last week. She was amazing with the group, walking them through a series of exercises that helped them moving and physically expressing themselves in ways we had not seen. She eventually got children to meditate and relax to soothing music and some massage, while having them imagine and draw a scenario describing "home". The children later acted out some short improvisational plays.

Meanwhile a group of 25 children showed up in the morning to take Dabke lessons with a team of staff trainers; they were the "comparison" group we requested. The boys were already quite good at Dabke, while the girls were making a great effort; it was rather touching to watch as one of the young trainers who lost his arm (presumably in the war) taught them vigorous dance moves. 

After their two hour session, Amani and Mustafa, lead the evaluation sessions with the children. These were conducted as one large group in the center library as we didn't have enough staff for in-depth focus groups. But remarkably the children took to the evaluation quite well and ended up drawing their hand exercise and daily dairy quite well, subsequently writing brief responses to Amani's questions. While it was not structured as key informant interviews in small focus groups, the children provided some good background info. on 2-3 sheets each. 

After lunch our groups were eager to complete their photo-montages, even before we had a chance to fully prepare all the laptops. In the morning we worked with the center staff to have all our laptops scanned for viruses, checked software and data, and labeled each one with group IDs so they had stable machines for photo editing. 

We got each group to work in a different room at the center so they could do audio recordings easily. All worked out much more smoothly this time around; the children were much more so in control of the photo editing and managed to record voice narratives for all their shorts. One group had to restart all over after the power went out and their laptop had no battery; their patience was impressive despite it all.
Finally, we got nearly all montages ready to screen and I decided to conduct our evaluation de-briefing with them for 30 mins before the final presentations. I would have preferred a more creative focus group-style evaluation but we just ran out of time... 

The children were generally quite happy with the workshop - many remarking that this was their best day as they got to complete their photo narratives. Others felt the workshop got them out in their community getting to understand local issues in ways they never did and they really appreciated being asked to take on a responsible journalistic role. Others really enjoyed the photo reviews and editing techniques, not to mention the calming drama session earlier.

We insisted on hearing some difficulties they encountered; the children were frank to indicate some points including their surprise at some local community folks not wanting to be interviewed or photographed (though some children found that they were able to go back the following day and break the ice with many such folks). They complained about not having enough cameras in their groups and not enough time for editing. Others indicated the days were often long and tiring. 

They also felt that the changes among children and trainers in groups (particularly in the first few days) was disruptive and with some trainers having to leave early or miss a day (due to exams or illness) lead to swapping trainers affecting group dynamics, and left the children hanging in their assignments at times. I mentioned that we really appreciated their feedback and would take that into account to improve the coming days, while encouraging us to meet us individually to offer more feedback anytime.

We finally watched the photo montages and this was deeply satisfying for all; below are the five main narratives they produced:

1. A photo montage on keeping the streets clean - the children visited a juice factory to ask about their practices to make better products and produced a piece that highlighted the community's responsibility.

2. A piece about the special needs center in the camp and how the group met a young hearing-impaired girl, Amna, whom they interviewed and trained to use a camera. It was a touching story that the children themselves felt transformed their experience spending time with Amna.

3. A detailed journalistic report on the Abu Rashed Pool, a rain-water collection facility in the camp that was often flooded or polluted. They did a great job producing a fact-filled photo essay with some imaginative writing.

4. A piece on the human rights centers in the camp with intensive interviews of the Hamad family that was devastated during the war. The piece was really well done, especially the interviews and photos with the father who lost his arm. The words and haunting music were powerful and I think it left a mark on the children who produced the piece as well.

5. A visit to a Bedouin village outside the camp and the traditional lives they lived, including mud homes they still continue to build. This group probably enjoyed their field-trip the most and produced the most dazzling photo transitions and music thanks in part to their artistic trainer, though we remarked that the special effects were probably unnecessary.

Overall it was a great screening to close the first full week of the workshop in Jabaliya camp. The children here really seem to be looking forward to the week ahead on creative writing and acting out their fictional narratives.

A selection of photos from the workshop are posted online here.

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