Words, Drawings Radiating Hope for Palestine

Pen Palestine Builds Community, Connects Children
A picture of Paige, 9 years old, with her initial letter to her pen pal Sadyieh in Gaza.
Paige’s handwritten letter to her pen pal Sadyieh in Gaza.
Sadyieh is reading her first letter from her pen pal Paige.
A picture of Sadyieh, Paige’s pen pal in Gaza sending a message of love from Palestine.
Sadyieh’s handwritten letter to her pen pal Paige in California.

Everyone was fast asleep except for an Israeli soldier who was awakened by a child carrying his school bag with his pens, books, and notebooks, heading towards his school whose walls had been either pierced by bullets or smashed by shrapnel. If the child had survived and continued on his way to his seat in the classroom, there would have been a vacant seat next to him decorated with wreaths for a classmate who was shot by occupation soldiers while having fun in front of his yard or returning or going to school.

According to UNICEF reports, major strides have been made in recent decades to improve the situation of children in the State of Palestine, with some social indicators, such as near universal immunization coverage and high primary school enrollment rates – including for girls – showing progress far ahead of other Middle Eastern and North African countries.

However, much work needs to be done to ensure that every Palestinian child reaches his or her full potential. This includes addressing the numerous barriers that children and youth face in accessing basic services and exercising their rights. Such challenges are the result of a variety of factors, not the least of which is the extremely high level of violence to which they are subjected in their schools and communities, alongside the ongoing conflict.

"Pal" is an English word that means "friend." A "pen pal" is someone you get to know through friendly written correspondence.

Pen Palestine is an educational project that uses handwritten letters, photographs, and drawings to connect Palestinian children with children all over the world. The purpose is to promote cross-cultural friendship and understanding by allowing Palestinian children to express their identity, and the beauty and innocence of their hearts, so that other children can see them as loving children of the world who are no different from them.

Heather Alexandra, founder and coordinator of Pen Palestine, is a public school teacher working with fourth graders in the progressive community of Berkeley, California. She has over 25 years' experience teaching in both New York and California.

 

 

Heather Alexandra, founder and coordinator of Pen Palestine, is a public school teacher working with fourth graders in the progressive community of Berkeley, California. (Photo Credit: Kala Minko)

 

“Pen Palestine was born out of the positive success I experienced when I first organized a letter writing exchange a few years ago while working to develop the leadership skills of my 4th and 5th grade students at a Jewish community center. Being that good leaders operate from a position based in kindness, compassion, empathy and grace, I knew that enabling my students to understand the plight of the other would be an essential part of developing their abilities to embrace a very challenging world,” Heather told Majalla.

To that end, she gave her students the opportunity to form friendships with children in Gaza who were receiving mental health treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the 2014 55-day siege. Having witnessed and experienced the profound emotional impact this project had on both children and adults on both sides of the globe, Heather knew she wanted to continue involving her students in this project for many years to come.

“Receiving photos of happy faces from Gaza holding letters from new friends encourages me to keep going,” Heather said.

Heather saw the importance and need for greater connection and communication as a result of humanity's loneliness and isolation as a result of the pandemic. This prompted her to broaden the project beyond her own classroom by making this opportunity available to other teachers as well. As a result, Pen Palestine was born.

Heather's partners in Gaza, the Palestine Children's Relief Fund (PCRF), UNRWA schools, and her friend, award-winning distinguished English language teacher Mrs. Asma Mustafa, have helped her connect teachers from Canada, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Ireland with English language teachers and social workers in Gaza this school year.

 

Nayla when received her first response from her new pen pal Raghad from Gaza.

 

 

“My students are very young, 8 and 9 years old. They know nothing of politics in the MENA region, only that their pen pals live difficult lives thousands of miles away. They come from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds,” Heather said.

The process for Pen Palestine goes as follows: “Teachers from outside Palestine connect with me via PenPalestine.org and submit a request for connection which can take up to 6 weeks depending upon the number of students they would like to involve. After I have matched teachers with each other, correspondence is initiated by foreign students. The "mailing" process is a little different than the regular process of sending letters,” Heather said.

“Considering the difficulty of getting anything in and out of the Gaza Strip, teachers send letters electronically rather than through posted mail. Each and every letter file is sent to me so I can check clarity of letter images, legibility, and appropriateness of subject matter. Sometimes letter files need to be re-photographed and I communicate with the teachers to help guide them on what needs to be improved. When the files look clear they are sent on to the cooperating teacher wherever they are in the world. The process continues until the end of the school year,” she added.

 

Nayla is writing a response to her new pen pal Raghad from Gaza.

 

Regarding financing: “Right now I am still doing all of this work on a completely volunteer basis. The abundance of requests for connection I originally received was beyond what I was able to provide six months ago creating a strong desire to make Pen Palestine my full-time job. I also want participation in Pen Palestine to remain free of charge for teachers and parents,” she said.

With regard to Heather’s aspirations for the future, she said: “I am currently looking to secure fiscal sponsorship from a charitable organization. This will enable donors to give tax deductible donations to cover operating costs involved in administering the project. In addition, I also plan on writing grant proposals in the coming school year.”

Heather’s concluding message is: “Children should not pay the price of political conflicts, it is the right of every child to enjoy their innocence in an educationally and psychologically healthy environment.”


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