For those of us internationals who care deeply about Palestine, it is hard to know just how to make a real difference. Probably the most significant way we can help is to change the foreign policy of our government (particularly if we are American). But while I keep trying on this front, I have come close to despair. I do sense some (too gradual for my taste) shifts in public opinion, but judging by all the political posturing at the AIPAC meeting this year, I feel fairly certain that the U.S. administration and — especially — Congress will be the last to change, and a loooong time from now.
So, while we knock our heads bloody against that unyielding wall, I — like many others — look for some other way to make a difference, a difference that is tangible and concrete.
You can visit the Occupied Territories, and then go back home and talk about it, but even then, how do you know you have really brought about any change? Change that can be felt by the Palestinians on the ground? Or, you can donate money to one of the NGOs that work or fund other organizations in the region: MercyCorps, ANERA, UNRWA, etc. But your dollars can feel like just a drop in a big pot, and it’s hard to trace them to a specific impact. Plus, as I wrote in a previous article, the international NGOs foster an unhealthy dependence at the same time that they are helping.
What I look for when I travel to the OPT (and specifically to Gaza, where I have focused most of my time) are specific projects and people to which I can donate my skills and what meager money I can spare, which I believe will be able to take my donation and amplify the impact…like the proverbial story of the fish and loaves of bread. I invite you to join with me in one of those projects, and if you like, you can come to Gaza later this year and see the impact with your own eyes. By giving as little as $10, and then encouraging your network to do the same, you can help re-build and equip the practice/workshop “home” of the Strip’s only breakdance group. Let me tell you why you should.
I first met the Camps Breakerz breakdancing crew in the spring of 2010, when I lived in Gaza for six months. I was looking for examples of Gazans — particularly youth, since they account for more than half of the population as well as unemployment — who were finding innovative ways to help each other, while also resisting the occupation. I soon discovered the Camps Breakerz — so named in part to advertise their pride in their refugee camp origins. “People think camps are just for poor people with no culture,” co-founder Funk “B-boy” (aka Muhammad Al-Ghreiz) told me. “But in fact, the camps have talent.”
Funk (left) and Pipboy, the two founders of Camps Breakerz
Seven of the nine “core” members of the Camps Breakerz hail from the Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the center-south of Gaza. Taking its name from a local Bedouin tribe, Nuseirat initially accommodated 16,000 refugees who fled from the southern districts of Palestine after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, including the coast and Be’er Sheva. Before the camp was formed, refugees were confined to a former British military prison in the area. Today, the land size has stayed the same, but the population has swelled to 66,000 — with 35% of the residents under the age of 14 and another 23% between 15 and 26 years old. Nine of the 11 schools are forced to operate on double shifts.
Rather like elsewhere, breakdancing isn’t uniformly accepted in Gaza — but for different reasons. A sport/art form that originated in the 1970s as part of the African-American hip hop culture in New York City, it is derided by many in the traditional Islamic culture of Gaza as a “Western” art. But breakdancing, like rap, has a universal appeal to the oppressed and voiceless. You could say that it builds bridges between continents and cultures through a common, gut-level form of self-expression. With breakdancing especially, no language is needed. And for those people who fear hip hop is going to “corrupt” Palestinian culture, all you have to do is see it for yourself. The rappers and breakdancers in Gaza borrow what they like, and adapt what they don’t. This is Palestinian breakdance, not American.
Puma (the English translation of his Arabic name, Fahd) B-boy tries to explain it this way: “Breakdancing for me has been a way to learn to trust myself, and then to convey my message to the world.” At 28 one of the older members of the group, Puma studied physical education at college but has been unable to find a job. Despite his university degree, he now works part-time in a mini-mart — an experience common to many Gazans.
Dark B-boy (real name Ibrahim, but who chose the nickname because of the refuge he finds in the dark), provides a similar explanation: “Breakdance is another life for me..an escape from the realities of ‘normal’ life. It helps me achieve peace of mind.” He adds that as an athlete (he studied physical education as well, and now teaches at a government secondary school), breakdancing helps him fully develop and express his talent.
And then there is “Machine,” or “Chino” for short (so nicknamed because he never gets tired). He comes from a poor Bedouin family where he felt repressed and forced into traditional molds that didn’t fit. And although he started university, he soon dropped out, feeling directionless and lost. That is, until he found the Camps Breakerz. Today, at 23, he is one of the star performers.
Chino embodies the reason why helping the Camps Breakerz is about more than supporting a hip hop group. It’s about giving the youth in Gaza a creative and physical outlet that builds their bodies, and their sense of self-confidence. They have performed in more than 60 shows since they formed in 2005, for groups and occasions ranging from the UNRWA Summer Games to a memorial to the slain Italian activist, Vittorio Arrigoni.
Meanwhile, they are increasingly being asked to conduct workshops so that other youth can join in. That’s why they need your help. They need a safe, properly equipped place to hold those workshops.
Until January of 2009, Camp Breakerz trained at the Al-Ahli Sports Club in the Nuseirat camp. “But unfortunately, the club was completely destroyed during the last war and we are now on our own,” Funk says.
Instead, they are now confined to training at his house in the camp, in a cramped, rough room that can barely accommodate them. They also lack mattresses to soften any falls, gymnastics equipment to better hone their skills, and uniforms to build a sense of identity and pride. But funding is hard to come by.
“The international NGOs care mostly about political issues and humanitarian aid, like food handouts and medical supplies,” says Funk. “Those are important, but so is helping youth discover how to have fun and be confident again. Breakdancing can do that.”
Ahmed Ismail, known as Pipboy and the manager of the group, adds that beyond the actual breakdancing, Camps Breakerz creates a second family for the youth, and gives a discipline and structure to their days. (Note: Due to the conservative nature of the Islamic culture in Gaza, currently only boys have joined the team. However, Pip says they would gladly train girls if an appropriate sponsor could be found.)
So, if you want to help the Palestinians of Gaza, not just by writing and ranting on blogs, etc., but on the ground, this is a concrete way to do so. And for those donors who want to see their dollars in action, a delegation is planned for the fall to see the crew and their students perform in their new building. All it takes is $10, just a little more than a price of a cafe latte. Isn’t that worth a little self esteem for Gazan youth?