“We are here for life”

The empowering art of The Freedom Theater

Oct 02, 2023
Mural at the entrance of The Freedom Theater in Jenin refugee camp. (Photo: Courtesy of The Freedom Theater)

Ramallah, October 2, 2023—"The theater is my only outlet in the camp," said Rahma, a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who has performed in The Freedom Theater for four years. 

Rahma, who lives in Jenin refugee camp in the northern occupied West Bank, began participating in The Freedom Theater programs after Israeli forces shot and killed her brother and cousin. The Israeli military has repeatedly targeted Jenin refugee camp with nighttime military incursions, airstrikes, demolition of homes and infrastructure, detention and killings of Palestinians, including children, and more. 

This hypermilitarized environment has prompted The Freedom Theater to provide a platform for artistic expression and cultural engagement that empowers children as well as adults and fosters a sense of agency within a community marked by conflict and adversity. Through the transforming power of theater and the arts, the theater aspires to achieve freedom in all its forms and to combat oppression, injustice, and military occupation. It encompasses a diverse range of activities and artistic forms that address the experiences, struggles, and aspirations of the Palestinian people, with a particular focus on children and youth. 

Damage outside the courtyard of the theater after the Israeli military invasion, July 3, 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of The Freedom Theater)

Part 1 Seeking refuge during an Israeli military incursion

“If our house was bombed, I would be less upset than if the theater was bombed," Rahma said after learning that The Freedom Theater was damaged during the July 3 Israeli military incursion into Jenin refugee camp. 

“[The Israeli military incursion] caused damage to the courtyard where many of the children gather to play, and shattered the front entrance and windows of the theater. And above that, the bombing caused cracks in the theater's ceiling,” said Mustafa Sheta, the general director of The Freedom Theater. “Israeli forces raided the theater’s guesthouse while a Brazilian journalist was residing in, who was detained later. The Israeli forces drilled holes in the walls to snipe and observe the theater courtyard.”

A hole in the theater roof's wall was drilled by Israeli snipers during the military invasion on July 3, 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of The Freedom Theater)

During the military incursion, the Naghniyeh family, including 10 children, sought refuge in the theater. Israeli forces targeted them with missiles and were surrounded by many snipers, disintegrating their hopes for safety. Adnan Naghniyeh, who lives next door to the Freedom Theater and works as its chief technician, huddled all 25 family members in the amphitheater room, struggling to find comfort when there was no water, food, and electricity. 

The destruction of the infrastructure in the surrounding area hindered the children's access to The Freedom Theater for several days after the Israeli military incursion.

A boy checks the damage inside a house in the Jenin refugee camp on July 6, 2023, following a large-scale Israeli military operation. (Photo: AFP / Zain Jaafar via Getty Images)

Part 2 Theater and art as paths to healing

"I see the world differently, and the people around me see me uniquely,” said Ahmed, a 12-year-old cast member and director’s assistant, who has participated in the theater for two years. “Sometimes children at school bully me about the theater, and this is their opinion that I respect. Still, it does not affect me because it gave me an excellent opportunity to discover myself and my future ambitions.”

Ahmed worked with Ranin Odeh, Child and Youth Program Coordinator at The Freedom Theater, to create a play titled "Kingdom of Emojis." This play delves into the world of children, highlighting the impact of technology and Israeli military occupation on their lives. Kids-to-kids plays, like "Kingdom of Emojis," are theatrical productions designed primarily by and for children, offering a platform for young voices to explore relatable themes, characters, and storylines, allowing them to actively participate in the creative process and express their unique perspectives and experiences.

 Children take part in the 2023 summer camp at The Freedom Theater. (Photo: Courtesy of The Freedom Theater)

The Freedom Theater offers various educational programs and workshops for young Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp, the city, and the surrounding areas. These programs not only educate theater and performing arts skills but also encourage critical thinking, creativity, and teamwork. By fostering these skills, over and above, the theater aims to empower individuals to become agents of change in their communities. 

Children take part in the 2023 summer camp at The Freedom Theater on June 19, 2023, despite Israeli raids in Jenin earlier that day. (Photo: Anadolu Agency / Issam Rimawi via Getty Images.

“Theater is a form of therapy in and of itself, and it begins with art and progresses to theatrical and dramatic application,” said Ranin, the program coordinator. “I’m targeting children who have been subjected to trauma and were raised in an unhealthy environment, and I work with children in adolescence to break stereotypes through art and self-understanding, which help create a healthy environment for any child's personal development and self-formation.” 

“The Elephant”: An artistic production of The Freedom Performing Arts School (TFT). (Photo: Courtesy of The Freedom Theater)

Part 3 Artistic education under endless Israeli military occupation

“The demolition of homes, the loss of family members, and the arrests mark the beginning of these young generations' realization and awareness in the camp. This realization creates space with the desire to reenact the scene again and correct it in order to undo the damage it caused or attempt to prevent it from happening, which led to motives and feelings of rage and rampage,” said Mustafa Sheta, the general director of the theater.

The entrance of The Freedom Theater on June 19, 2023, during an Israeli military operation. (Photo: Courtesy of The Freedom Theater)

The theater struggles to reach a wide audience due to mobility restrictions imposed by Israeli forces onto Palestinians. It has navigated a series of threats, intimidation, and even violence from various sources that oppose its message and activities due to its advocacy for change. The theater's members, including actors, staff, and children, have endured personal risks due to their work and participation in the organization.

On September 11, 2022, Israeli forces arrested the chairman of The Freedom Theater's board of directors, Bilal Al-Saadi from Jenin refugee camp, while he was passing through the Zaatara military checkpoint, south of Nablus in the northern occupied West Bank. Bilal was placed in administrative detention, a form of detention without charge or trial. His detention was extended for the second time in a row at the beginning of this year for an additional period of six months, under the justification that he poses a threat to state security.

Like many places in the world where communities live under threat, arts education is not a priority for every family.

“I work with many camp children in early childhood and beyond, and they have great creativity, but they do not continue in the theater because of the camp residents' mental and social attitudes towards artistic education,” said Ranin. “Many prioritize urgent needs over artistic endeavors, so convincing individuals of the value of artistic expression as a tool for change is an ongoing challenge.”

Part 4 Eternal stars of the theater

On November 21, 2022, 17-year-old Mahmoud Al-Sadi, a Freedom Theater participant, was shot by Israeli forces in the Al-Hadaf neighborhood in the city of Jenin in the northern occupied West Bank. Mahmoud was on his way to school in Wadi Burqin, adjacent to Al-Hadaf neighborhood, but he was blocked by clashes due to an Israeli military incursion into Jenin refugee camp earlier that morning. Mahmoud turned around to go home, and an Israeli soldier in an Israeli military vehicle around 140 meters (459 feet) away shot him in the abdomen with live ammunition. Mahmoud’s classmates transferred him to Ibn Sina hospital in a private car where he was pronounced dead later that morning.

Israeli forces shot and killed 17-year-old Mahmoud Al-Sadi while he was on his way to school on November 21, 2022. (Photo: Courtesy of the Al-Sadi family)

For several years, Mahmoud was one of the theater actors, and he was granted an educational leave to focus on the secondary stage as a source of encouragement and continuity in education. 

“His death was the first and major shock to the theater and the rest of his group of actors, and we took a step to interact with them to mitigate the effects of losing Mahmoud and not slipping into the desire to avenge their friend,” Mustafa said and adding that he told them, “We are here for life, not for death, and we are not projects of death and corpses that have a specific time. Rather, we must make a distinctive impression on our existence by accomplishing various goals and achievements.”

Mahmoud is not the only child in the Freedom Theater community killed by Israeli forces in the last year. 

“Sadil was a neighbor and friend of the theater from an early age," said Mustafa, referring to 14-year-old Sadil Naghniyeh, who was shot in the head with live ammunition by an Israeli soldier inside an armored military vehicle passing near her house in Jenin on June 19 during an Israeli military incursion into Jenin refugee camp, according to documentation collected by Defense for Children International - Palestine.

Sadil was sitting in the garden of her family’s home, opposite the Zahra neighborhood north of Jenin refugee camp, and used her phone to record Israeli military vehicles on a street near her home. As an armored Israeli military vehicle passed near her house, an Israeli soldier opened the vehicle’s back door and fired two bullets at Sadil. One bullet struck the front of her head and exited from the back, and after two days in the hospital she was pronounced dead.

Israeli forces shot and killed 14-year-old Sadil Naghniyeh on June 19, 2023, according to documentation collected by DCIP. (Photo: Courtesy of the Naghniyeh family)

"She always participated in summer camps in the theater, except for this year due to conservative social beliefs that girls should abandon these activities for particular reasons,” added Mustafa. “The announcement of her injury and then her death was a renewed shock after the loss of [Mahmoud Al-Sadi], and another tragedy for the theater staff and its children. We were confronted with the question of what should be done to protect and defend children and their mental health, but it became clear that the children of the camp could not be spared from the sounds of sirens, explosions, demolitions, and the storming of Israeli military vehicles into the camp.” 

Most recently, on September 10, Israeli forces shot and killed an extended member of The Freedom Theater family, 15-year-old Milad Al-Raei, in Al-Arroub refugee camp near Hebron in the southern occupied West Bank. Milad was the nephew of several former Freedom Theater staff members.

The Freedom Theater stands as a poignant testament to the power of artistic expression and cultural preservation in the face of adversity. This remarkable organization, founded in the heart of a refugee camp, has not only nourished the talents of countless individuals but has also served as a light of hope for a community seeking to define its identity and voice. The theater has effectively transcended its physical limits through artistic empowerment, education, and activism, becoming a symbol of perseverance and determination that resonates far beyond its immediate surroundings.


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