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We were so pleased to be able to welcome 20 visitors from Aida Refugee Camp for the Festival, 15 of them young dancers, accompanied by their dance teacher Nasim Abu Aisha, and three key workers from Aida Camp: Salah Al-Ajarma, the director, Mohammed Al Azraq the programmes co-ordinator, Kholoud Al-Ajarma the media co-ordinator and Rich Wiles the photographer and author who lives and works in Aida Camp. Calder High and Halifax High had agreed to participate in a three-day dance workshop, based at Calder High. So on Wednesday July 7th, the day after they had arrived, the young Palestinians turned up at school to meet new friends from Calderdale and start this project. (Also keen to sample school dinners!) 

None of the young people knew each other, not all the Palestinians spoke strong English, everyone was on unfamiliar territory and, as former teachers, we know only too well how difficult it can be to break down barriers and get people working together.  Jez Gregg, of Calder High, took the lead on his home turf in ice-breaking exercises and, with the three other dance teachers (Ainsley Mc Bean of Halifax High, Nazim Abu Aisha of Aida Camp  and Jon Benney, a professional dancer and friend of Aida Camp), achieved so much in such a short time. By the end of the morning the dance was working like magic. Boys and girls, English and Palestinian were working literally hand-in-hand, teaching each other dance moves and thoroughly enjoying it all. 

After all the hard work of preparing for the Festival and for the visit of our friends in Palestine, it was such a joy simply to stand there and see the end product emerge, like one of those speeded-up films of flowers opening. At one point, the youngsters were getting on with a pre-prepared sequence of moves, Jez and Ainsley stood back and Jez said, “Look, they don’t need us!” But actually, we all know that not much happens in education by chance: those four fantastic teachers had enabled the young people to meet, trust each other and produce their best work. 

Then on the day of the Festival, we saw the end result: something we’d hoped would happen but which we knew was a tall order after just three days of work – but there it was – Palestinian and English young people dancing together and putting on a great show. 

All friends together, relaxing on Festival Day.

 

  

Hand-in-hand

 

Building trust

 

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On the Festival Day, the art work which had been produced by Riverside Junior School, Hebden Bridge and Mount Pellon Junior School, Halifax was exhibited alongside samples from four new photographic exhibitions created by the young people of the Lajee Cultural Centre, Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. The youngsters of Lajee were dancing at the Festival with new friends made in Calder High and Halifax High and the children of Riverside and Mount Pellon were singing with Reem Kelani, so it was wonderful to have a special room showing the artistic work of these different groups of young people.

The Children’s Art exhibition was entitled “This is Where I Live” and had pictures by children  living in Gaza, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Halifax and Hebden Bridge. The pictures reward close scrutiny (rather like the Renaissance Drawings on show at the British Museum, you need to stand close to appreciate the intricate detail). And the detail is revealing: children, all with similar hopes and ambitions, but with such radically different experiences of life.

Alongside this, some stunning photos by young people of Lajee. The four photographers adopted different perspectives, as the titles of their work shows: Out of Focus; Cultural Education in Palestinian Refugee Camps; Reflections; Different Shades of Olive. The work is remarkably professional and accomplished and well as thought-provoking. The common thread is the shared sense  not just of Palestinian identity, but the special articulation of that identity for Palestinian refugees. The work went on to be exhibited at the Amnesty International Centre, London where the Lajee dancers gave their final performance of the tour.

Miras Al-Azzeh of Aida Camp with his photographs which focus on the cultural education of young people in the refugee camp.

The Mayor of Calderdale, Anne McAllister, her consort (and me) admiring the work of Riverside School, Hebden Bridge.

One of the pictures from Al Rowwad, a cultural centre in Aida Camp, Bethlehem.

 

In the days leading up to the Festival, there were some preliminary events, including a presentation of work by photographer, Asim Rafiqui.  Asim is an independent photographer based in Stockholm, Sweden. He has been working professionally since 2003 and focuses on issues related to the aftermath of conflict. This interest has led him to produce work from Iraqi Kurdistan, Haiti, and border areas of Pakistan as well as the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Asim’s work was commended to us by a friend who lives in Gaza and when we looked at this exhibition on-line we could see why. “Portraits of Survival” are not just familiar pictures of  broken buildings and destruction, but face-to-face encounters with real people behind the stories we hear from Gaza. They are very dignified and powerful pictures which leave a lasting impression, not least because Asim also insists that his images are accompanied by words: his personal diary accounts of the people he met, giving their names and citing some revelatory detail about their immediate circumstances. Asim read these words out as he showed the pictures to us and, without wishing to dramatise the effect, it was very moving. I think it was such an experience because Asim’s work enabled a connection (quite an intimate connection, despite the distance across time and space) between us sitting in Halifax and men, women and children in Gaza, whose eyes met ours through these remarkable images. See them if you can and read the words too – they must be taken together (AOG)

One of Asim Rafiqui's "Portraits of Survival."

 

This picture shows some of the embroidered squares which will go into the second wall-hanging.

The embroidered wall hanging for the women’s co-operative in Bethany has now been finished. It was on show in the Piece Hall on July 10th in the Discover Palestine Festival in its very-nearly finished state as you can see in the photo here. Now, we’ve totally completed it, seamed, stitched, secured, perfect. Over the next month or so, it will  be shown in a few places locally (beginning with St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Halifax in September) before going to Palestine. 

The response to the project has been so great that we have started to make a second hanging: we just had too many squares to go into the first. This next hanging will be the same size as the first and will also go to Palestine. We are consulting with the people involved in the project on its home-to-be and will post this asap. 

Special thanks to Audrey, Jane, Christine and Isobel for help in creating and finishing the work, which was much admired on the day after its unveiling by Robin Dixon, Mayor of Hebden Royd. 

The finished wall-hanging on show at the Discover Palestine Festival in Halifax's Piece Hall.

 

We launched the art project, “This is Where I Live”, in Hebden Bridge some weeks ago and the second school to take part is in nearby Halifax. This junior school is called Mount Pellon; we worked with Year 5 children and their teacher, using the same quiz about homes, art work from Palestinian children and Palestinian story book as in Hebden Bridge. The children were every bit as responsive and enthusiastic. Mrs Larner’s class decided to represent their favourite things from home rather than paint the place itself. They have also written cards to go to children in Palestine and done some marvellous “magic eye” weaving. We walked into the first session with them just after dinner only to find the whole class deeply engrossed in a calming Tai Chi exercise. This is how they begin afternoon lessons. It was great: I just wish I’d tried it back in my old college! Doing this art work in Riverside and Mount Pellon has been an absolute joy, meeting two fabulous teachers (Mr Denham and Mrs Larner) not to mention these lovely children. And, at the end of it, an exhibition of work by children from Calderdale and Palestine – side by side – in the Piece Hall for all to see and enjoy! (A O’G)

Happy children of Year 5, Mount Pellon, with Mrs Larner, far right.

Clive, Robin(the Mayor), Paul, Trout and Murray get ready to stitch.

 

Clive works on the Citroen chevrons.

 

Robin, working on his embroidery of Hebden's 500 year old bridge.

 

Probably the last of the embroidery workshops took place in The Hole in the Wall in Hebden Bridge and was “Mainly for Men”. It was a fitting venue for the final session because it was Hebden Royd Town Council which gave us our first grant, enabling us to start this project back in February. The Mayor, Robin Dixon, who’s been a fantastic supporter of the Festival and everything else we do, came along to try his hand. The embroiderers at this event were what you might call a motley crew (and I speak as someone with much respect and affection for them all) but it was a surprise and delight to the female helpers to see how they could handle a needle. The competition was stiff: football was on downstairs and one of the bunch did disappear at times, but I’m sure we’ll see the men’s work in the final wall-hanging. So squares showing  MCFC, a commemorative candle for a much-loved wife, Hebden’s 500 year old bridge and the Citroen chevrons will be admired in Palestine thanks to these men.

Riverside Junior School, Hebden Bridge, was the first venue for the England-Palestine Children’s Art Project. The theme is “This is Where I Live” and we have been lucky to get some evocative pictures from children living in Refugee Camps in the West Bank and in Gaza. We showed the Hebden Bridge children images of homes across the world and then focused on Aida Camp, giving a glimpse of life there. We studied the children’s art work from the Refugee Camps and Gaza, to understand the images. The first session ended with a reading of a story book for children written and illustrated by the children of Lajee Cultural Centre in Aida Camp. In the second session, art production started in earnest. Some boys wanted to see more of the Aida murals, Handala and Banksy’s work, so a little group looked at this. One more session should produce some fabulous pictures of life in Yorkshire to display alongside the work of Palestinian children in the Art Space in the Piece Hall, Halifax.