Holding on to Hope: Khader’s Story
It’s morning in Beit Hanoun, and Khader is leaving his home to head to school. As he steps outside, he’s greeted by a group of students from the nearby primary school he works with who are headed the same way. One of them, a young girl with Down’s Syndrome, steps forward out of the crowd of children and takes his hand. Khader leads the children off to school, joking and singing with them to build up their spirits before the start of the day.
Khader is a coach trained by Right To Play who works at local schools and with community organizations to help the children of Beit Hanoun cope with their situation. Located on the northeastern border of the Gaza Strip, Beit Hanoun has been hit hard by violence over the years. The town has a large population of refugees, and poverty is rampant. Children rely on coaches like Khader to bring much-needed recreational activities and extracurricular activities that help them hold onto hope.
“I want to leave a positive mark on children’s lives. I used to say that I would give half my years to make a crying child smile.” – Khader, coach
Growing Up in One of the Toughest Places on Earth
Khader was born in 1996, just a few years before the Second Intifada, and grew up during one of the Gaza Strip’s most turbulent periods. His hometown of Beit Hanoun was subject to shelling, sieges, and other violence over the course of 20 years, as its position on the border made it a battleground between Hamas and Israel. Growing up in this kind of environment is tough; many children tend to keep to themselves, to avoid standing out, and to learn not to hope for much at all.
Khader didn’t have much hope himself, but what little he had was focused on getting into university. Despite the levels of poverty in the Gaza Strip, it has one of the highest rates of university enrollment in the world (46%). For many young people, university is a chance to learn about the outside world they have never seen. Through hard work, Khader achieved his dream, and in 2017 he graduated with a degree in social sciences.
“I struggled hard to go to university so I could create a blooming future in Gaza, but I graduated with a piece of paper and suddenly I realized I needed to figure out what to do with it,” he says.
“I struggled hard to go to university so I could create a blooming future in Gaza.” – Khader, coach
More than half of university graduates in Gaza are unemployed, and after the high of successfully graduating had passed, Khader returned home, unsure of his future once more. Through friends, he heard that Right To Play had started working with a local organization in Beit Hanoun to help local children. The program focused on training local coaches to use play to improve children’s mental health and their social and emotional development. Khader was intrigued by the idea, and at the urging of his cousin, who was already a coach, he joined a Right To Play training program.
Giving All Children a Chance To Play
One of the effects of violence and poverty on the town of Beit Hanoun’s is that there are few safe spaces for children to play. So Khader volunteered the front yard of his family’s home as a play area. Primary school students would gather in front of his home after school, and mothers in nearby homes would bring their children over when they saw the crowd forming, eager to make sure their children didn’t miss out.
Khader and his fellow coaches led the children through team games that taught them how to collaborate and communicate, and helped them take their mind off the stresses of the outside world. After each game, the children and the coaches would have a focused discussion about what they had learned, and how they could apply the lessons to their lives. The sessions became informally known as the “Play While Their Moms Cook” games.
One of the most important innovations Khader and the other coaches in the program brought was inclusivity, especially for children with disabilities. Only a little over a third of all children with disabilities in Gaza go to school, and fewer than half receive regular education of any kind. Khader’s program was open to all children, and he actively sought to include children with disabilities in the games and learning.
“I remember one girl named ‘Aisha’ who had Down’s Syndrome who used to be so excited each day when she came by. We always made sure she could fully participate in the games we were playing together. I was so proud of how happy she was after each time she joined us,” remembers Khader.
Growing To Help Even More Kids
The program was so successful that by 2018 it grew too big for Khader’s front yard. Khader and the rest of the coaches started approaching schools and community organizations to partner with Right To Play and share their space so they could run bigger events for the kids in Beit Hanoun. This kind of partnership is common throughout the Palestinian Territories where facilities are limited and multiple organizations need to collaborate.
Before long, Khader was running a summer camp, helping to organize a cultural festival for 1,500 kids, and launching a series of Play Days at local schools --a chance for students to connect with each other and engage in a full day’s worth of games and activities.
“I want to leave a positive mark on children’s lives. I used to say that I would give half my years to make a crying child smile,” Khader says.
The work of a coach like Khader is often the brightest part of a child’s day, but it’s also a high point for Khader. He loves working with children and helping them cope with and overcome the same kinds of challenges that he overcame as a child. After each game, the talk turns to the children’s dreams for the future, and it’s their smiling faces and the sense of newfound hope that motivates Khader.
“When I was younger, I had to learn to overcome the obstacles in my life on my own, and I’m happy I can share that knowledge with the children, and help them have an easier time dealing with the same issues,” he says.