How online plays and interactive English lessons are breathing confidence into Palestinian children

Motivated by the confidence and empowerment it has provided for children, British charity ‘The Hands Up Project’ continues to provide unique support and activities to help Palestinian children learn English.  

The charity provides a number of programmes for children, such as online drama performances called ‘remote theatre’ and link ups with English speaking volunteers.

Founder Nick Bilbrough started the charity in 2016 after he was invited by the British Council to do story telling in Ramallah, West Bank. A year later during a visit to Gaza, he started the remote theatre project after seeing children perform in English.

Mr Bilbrough said: “Their English was so good that we thought they must have lived or studied abroad, but they had never left the Gaza strip.”

The remote theatre enables children in Palestine to write and perform plays to online audiences and international classrooms. 

Other than remote theatre, volunteers also join English classes in Gaza every week in ‘link ups’, providing children with a space to practise their language skills in real time.

More than 500 children a week are involved in these lessons, with many more taking part in drama competitions and virtual meet ups with schools in Argentina, Montenegro and various other countries across the globe.

These virtual meet-ups were set up so that children in Gaza could practise English with other students from across the world, whilst also sharing their stories and experiences.

During these online meetings, children from both classrooms also share with each other toys and hobbies that are special to them. One instance in particular grabbed the attention of Mr Bilbrough, in which two girls from Montenegro and Gaza had ‘a moment of connection’ over horse riding. 

The charity founder said: “They had a chat about how high they could jump. Obviously horse riding in Montenegro is very different to that in Gaza. These moments of connection where you find something in common, they are really worth a lot.”

Another key aspect of the project is that Palestinian teachers are still at the forefront of the lessons in Gaza. They are responsible for the delivery of the lessons, whilst the online teachers are there to add an ‘intercultural aspect’ to the lessons. 

Haneen Jadalla runs a drama club in Gaza, and is constantly involved with the work done by Hands Up. The drama teacher has seen a vast improvement in the confidence of the children involved.

Ms Jadalla said: “The project is about giving them [children] the space to communicate, to speak and share their stories in English.

“Before, they thought English was something imposed on them, they thought that the world didn’t care about them.”

However, these children now look forward to the classes. These link ups have connected students to the world outside of Gaza, making them ‘feel valued and seen’.

The charity is currently conducting research on the impact on the children’s level of English when there is an online volunteer present in the class. 

Mr Bilbrough said: “There are lots of people who think ‘Why should I learn English? I’m never going to meet a person from another country’. We’re trying to reach those people”

Since 2007, the Gaza strip has been under a complete blockade by neighbouring Israel. As a result, Nick Bilbrough described that it is harder for people in Gaza to travel to the West Bank, another Palestinian territory, than for them to travel to the UK. Most Palestinians living in Gaza have never left the 3rd most densely populated area in the world.

Therefore, The Hands Up Project provides the opportunity for children to improve their English and wider skills, encouraging them to look further than life in Gaza. Ms Jadalla described one student, Nour, who has recently earned a scholarship to study in the United States due to her drama work with the charity.

Ms Jadalla said: “She had been very quiet in my class, but she started to feel encouraged to start speaking to the volunteer.

“She was the main author in an award winning play. She had this dream of studying drama that she couldn’t do in Gaza.” 

Some of Haneen Jadalla’s students, whom for many the link up classes are their main exposure to life outside of Gaza. Credit: Haneen Jadalla

As reiterated by volunteers and Palestinian teachers alike, the main goal of the project is to improve the children’s confidence to speak English and share their thoughts and interests. However,  this comes in tandem with developing a positive outlook on the future. Young Palestinians like Nour have experienced this growth.

Within the research the charity is currently doing on its impact, children have taken part in questionnaires about their confidence. 

Haneen Jadalla has seen this growth amongst the children first hand. She said “At the start, they were feeling really stressed about their English not being understood, but there has been a quick shift in their attitudes changing.

“It’s not easy to change the children’s beliefs. Having a volunteer on their screens makes the children feel connected. It is about making those kids feel accepted as who they are, making them feel who they are is the best version of themselves.”

This mission of acceptance plays into the sentiment felt by many children living in Gaza. Nick Bilbrough recalls this sentiment during one of his visits to the strip. 

“Kids can often feel that they are demonised by the rest of the world. Early on in the project a girl came up to me and said ‘Please Mr Nick, will you tell people that we are not terrorists?’.

“This was a 14-year-old girl, it was one of the saddest moments I’ve experienced through this project.”

Gaza is one of the most densley populated areas in the world. Unemployment is around 46%, and 97% of drinking water is classed as ‘contaminated’. Credit: Muath Humaid.

Ms Jadalla added on the reality that many Gazan children face. She expressed: “Children think about heavy stuff when they’re young, they don’t have the opportunity to live their childhood, so we are trying to at least give them a chance through a screen to feel welcomed and valued.”

Despite challenges such as a lack of funding and regular electricity black outs in Gaza, the Hands Up Project continues to provide this space for children to improve their confidence and perspective on both the world and themselves.

“Empowerment is at the heart of what we are doing, getting the kids to perform and improve their confidence” concludes Ms Jadalla.

The hope is that children such as Nour will find a passion for performing arts and speaking English, something that could translate to a more positive outlook on their futures.

Donations to The Hands Up Project can be made here. Books containing the plays written and performed by the children involved can also be purchased here.

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