by Mike, K4P Jerusalem volunteer
There’s nothing so simple and joyful as just watching kids at play. You give them the space to run and jump and laugh and express themselves, and everything else seems to just fall away. But sometimes it’s not as simple as it seems.
On Friday, April 17th, I spent the day with the 66 newest members of Kids4Peace – the latest crop of 6th-graders that just started this January. It was field day at the Beit Safafa School in East Jerusalem, and that meant a day of popsicles, games, cheers, and letting kids be kids.
And that’s what they did. At first glance (or at first listen – as you approach the school playground from a distance and hear only the giggles and shouts as they drift out into the famously resonant and echo-friendly city of Jerusalem), it was indistinguishable from any other group of 6th-graders discovering lacrosse for the first time or getting into a game of tug-of-war.
But this was so much more than that. For one thing, it was the start of a six-year journey with Kids4Peace.
These kids are evenly split between the three Abrahamic religions that call Jerusalem home: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and even within those categories there’s remarkable diversity: Palestinian, Israeli, European, Arab, religious, secular, wealthy, poor, and all the seemingly endless ways each of those identifiers can mix and match and combine to form fascinatingly different but uniformly adorable and engaging children.
All of that plus the occasional language barrier means there’s still some awkwardness and clumping. The social circles that form organically when the kids sit down on the pavement for lunch aren’t exactly fully inclusive – and if you’re watching closely you’ll notice that “random selection” when picking teams for baseball often leaves the sides suspiciously unbalanced.
But you can’t expect 6th-graders not to *cheat* a little bit to be on the same team as their friends. And – in true 6th-grade fashion – these self-selected teams and lunch groups were divided by gender far more often than by anything else. (Especially considering that, without the occasional hijab or crucifix-necklace or kippah, the non-gender based differences can be a lot harder to spot.)
At this point, when the kids are still wearing nametags, when they’re still struggling to find the best, most comfortable ways to communicate somewhere in the chaotic mix of Hebrew, Arabic, and English – it’s hard to imagine that these kids really know what is in store for them.
Sixth grade means 11 or 12 years old. They’re teetering on the edge of the “kid world” that dominates in elementary school, beginning to drift dangerously into the emotional, socially-stratified world that follows, populated by preteens and adolescence.
As if middle school wasn’t enough, these kids have the troubled world around them to contend with as well. They haven’t necessarily fully come to terms yet with what the Israeli-Palestinian context will do to shape their lives, and they surely have no idea what the next six years in Kids4Peace might mean for them.
There will be powerful friendships, challenging emotions, painful dialogues, and difficult but ultimately worthwhile coexistence – and who knows what else. But for now there is play.
One of the four stations of the day is for assorted silly games, especially ones that require a lot of running. Tug-of-war is a big hit, although it leaves some guys a little shamed and disappointed. (The girls crush them every chance they get, while the boys sit idly by and wait for growth spurts.)
At another station the kids learn the traditional Kids4Peace cheers, shouting their way through them alternately in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. As the years continue, this cheer will become more and more significant and unavoidably loaded with emotion and energy of one kind or another – but for now it seems like little more than a mildly amusing chore. One boy laughs as he helps lead another round through the chant, but then wraps his arm around his buddy and remarks loudly, “I’m not having fun!”
Only an hour later, however, the boy is running bases in his first experience of Baseball. “This is the best game ever!” he exclaims to no one in particular as he lands on second.
The last two stations are thus reserved for Baseball and Lacrosse – two pure American imports that produce some funny looks on kids’ faces, sometimes amused, sometimes frustrated, sometimes just confused. But there is no “This is stupid,” or “I don’t get it.” They dive in, joyfully and eagerly getting into something new. They do some quick training as the volunteers from the Baseball and Lacrosse organizations show them the basic skills and rules, and the game is on.
The newness of the sports means no child is an expert. Even if they’ve seen it on TV before, most kids have probably never swung a bat. Everyone feels a bit silly, and maybe the slightest bit uncomfortable as they get used to swinging this weird Lacrosse stick around – but they’re learning together, and that’s what this is all about.
“Everywhere we go (echo)
People want to know (echo)
Who we are (echo)
So we tell them (echo)
We are Kids4Peace
Mighty Mighty Kids4Peace
Tired of the fighting
Time to do the right thing
We can do it better
We can live together
Kids! 4! Peace!”