Tent of Nations 2019: Where it Began

I want to preface my blog posts with a reason why I am publishing them all now, because it is an important part to understanding the travels and research and how I approached my travel. In July, I traveled to the West Bank to stay with a Palestinian farmer and his family, along with fourteen international volunteers. Together we ran a summer camp for Palestinian children in the Bethlehem area at the farm called Tent of Nations. If I were to have “publicly” discussed my travel plans, due to an Israeli law passed in the Knesset in 2017, I could potentially be stopped, questioned, and turned away from entrance into the country, disallowing me to do the research I had hoped to. While I did not publicly support BDS and while Tent of Nations does not publicly support BDS, overstepping Israeli law is not uncommon for Israeli authorities, so I decided not to take my chances. I can tell you that I was deemed the highest security risk and was thoroughly searched and questioned while leaving from the airport in Tel Aviv on the 29th–more on that in a later post, though. I’ve been journaling throughout the experience and I am excited to share what I’ve learned and seen, and which directions I want this project to go.

2:19 pm, April 7th, 2019, Max’s office

I just got off of a Whatsapp phone call with the director of the summer camp program I am going to be working with in the West Bank this summer. There’s a lot to say about the short interaction we had, and I’ll be very thorough with my story of how this project came to be and what my hopes are.

I’m writing my first journal entry now, even though my exploration for the project started in November, when the camp director came to speak at William and Mary. Daoud Nassar, the director of Tent of Nations (a 100 acre farm just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank), came to William and Mary as part of a speaking tour on the East coast of the US. Williamsburg United Methodist Church, Williamsburg Presbyterian, and the Wesley Foundation on campus cosponsored the speaking events he had on campus and at church. I am the student president of the Wesley Foundation, so I had the privilege of introducing Daoud when he was on campus in Tucker theatre. The theatre was almost empty, but Daoud told the story of his farm so sincerely that it could’ve moved an entire room. I’ll focus on the history of the farm in a separate post about the effects of military occupation on local communities, and I’ll use the Nassar’s special circumstance as a case study. 

Daoud in his presentation mentioned that aside from justice work and giving tours of his land, the farm also hosts a summer camp for two weeks for children in the area. I became a lot more interested; I have worked at a summer camp in Southwest Virginia for six years, first as a volunteer, then as a counselor, and then as the program coordinator for the camp program. Summer camp means a lot to me, and while I hadn’t done research on its effects before, I knew the power that summer camp had to give children strength and hope.

I talked to Daoud after the program ended about the summer camp, and about my experience. He asked me, “Have you worked with children who have experienced trauma?”, to which I answered Yes, I had. Being a mandated reporter and having children report abuse and neglect at summer camp was the whole reason I wanted to study psychology at William and Mary. Daoud suggested that I could make resources for volunteers to understand trauma in children.

He also asked if I could help with environmental education, and I also said yes, because I had loved writing nature programs at my other camp, and I was excited to work on whatever he needed. He gave me his contact information. He left Williamsburg on a dreary, rainy evening, and I was left wondering what to do.

Prior to this research, I had never left the country. I was frightened and excited at the prospect of going to Tent of Nations, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to afford the trip until I received a Sharpe Summer Grant. Two local churches in Williamsburg also wanted to support my journey, and are contributing now through donations for a new first aid kit for the camp program, and for craft supplies for the summer camp activities.

I will elaborate on the exploration of my research in another post. First I want to talk about the conversation I just had with Daoud over the phone regarding logistics for the camp program, and how I can help.

The program will be the 15th-27th of July. It’s a day camp; the children (approximately 50 of them) will arrive by bus at Tent of Nations in the morning at 9, and then leave at 2 pm. There will be five groups of approximately 10 campers, organized by age.

Some volunteers in the past had acted as activity coordinators, but most of the time the format of the groups follows a format I know as “small group camping” or “small group Christian camping”, in which the counselors and campers stay in the same group the whole camp, facilitating a group dynamic like that of a family. This is how Daoud expects camp to run this summer, and I am thrilled about it; what this means is I will grow very close with my group of campers while living there.

Every day, there’s about half an hour of talking about the theme of the camp. The theme for 2019 is “Growing Strong”, and each day will have a subtitle to focus on. Daoud asked for my help in coming up with subtitles related to Growing Strong (“What are you rooted in?”, “It all begins in the tiny seed”, etc.). Then there are games in a football field, usually involving the whole camp, before splitting off into groups to do activities on the schedule for that day. I’m still unsure about who is writing the schedule or if it will even be written down, but I will find that out soon enough.

Campers are ages 7-14 mostly. The are all from the greater Bethlehem area, and some are refugees. Some are Muslim and some are Christian. They can spend their time in a field or in several big marquis style tents, making crafts, playing music, performing skits, and getting ready for the big play for parents at the end of the two weeks.

I asked Daoud about the volunteers and whether they are trained upon arrival, and he said that there isn’t a required training beforehand, but volunteers that are early can be trained. It was at this point that I proposed to Daoud my research idea, and he liked it very much.

I asked about his vision for the trauma resources he wanted me to provide. He said, “The children are traumatized because of the political context. We try to let children discover their talents”. Trauma there has political contexts (with children living within refugee camps, seeing their neighbors being killed, etc.). My main worry about this is that I don’t have insight into what mental health resources their are in the area, how trauma is dealt with in the cultural context, and as an undergraduate psychology student I have no place teaching a course on clinical cultural psychology. Daoud and I are going to instead focus on communication with campers, communication among staff, and how (as an international volunteer) to talk to a child who discloses a traumatic experience to you. I’ll be keeping it positive and keeping it universal, as Daoud suggested, and I’ll be avoiding psychological jargon and technicalities and focusing more on relationships. I’ll be presenting these things in a series of workshops while there; I don’t know when yet.

I was so excited to receive a Charles Center Summer Grant to do this research, am I’m thrilled at the support pouring out from my community in Williamsburg and beyond. More posts to come,