"Is this what you're worried about?" exclaimed 8-year-old Ibrahim to his trainer, Doaa as he nonchalantly placed his finger on the blistering hot nozzle of the glue gun she was holding.
“It took me five full minutes to process what had just happened,” recalls Doaa. No wonder there. The boy had just hurt himself on purpose, disregarding her constant warnings.
Yet, his unthinkable action triggered an insight in her. It made her contemplate the underlying reasons. What might Ibrahim's life outside of school be like? Does he work after school? What does he do? It must be a harsh line of work. Are there others like him in this area? How do they feel about themselves?
Bola, a 9-year-old student, couldn't see himself as a good boy worthy of care and respect. He wouldn’t accept the words of encouragement his trainers were giving him. “We had this troublemaker in our group who may very well become a leader one of those days if he wanted to,” said Ahmed Galal, a volunteer trainer. "But, whenever we praised something he’d done, he would just turn his head away and scoff. After a one-to-one with him, he confessed to me that school is the only place where he could be ‘naughty’ and have fun, because, after school he had to work."
Bola and Ibrahim seem to stand out because of their rebellious attitude. But, they and their peers are generally subject to an intolerant culture of discipline, a typical characteristic of thousands of households and public schools in Egypt.
“It’s an expected effect of the environment they’re living in,” reflects Doaa. It was hard to make them work together in groups. They are always either punching, shoving, or kicking one another. If someone is standing in the way, they'd just shoulder their way through, pushing them aside. No 'Excuse Me's', no 'Sorry's. At first, I was confused as to why they do that. Then I learned that it doesn't necessarily mean that they were in disagreement. It's just how they communicate. They don't know any other way."
A major problem is that the children believe they deserve it. When I asked them if they knew of any alternative solution to physical punishment, most of them said they needed to "stop being naughty." I asked them if they believed they deserved to be spanked after doing something wrong. The entire group of five children I was talking to answered me, so matter-of-factly, "Yes!"
But, what did they like most about the camp? The unanimous answer was that the trainers "are nice to us and they don't hit us." Youssef, grade 3, was impressed at how his trainer, Miss Nada went out of her way just for him. "She asked me if I wanted to eat those biscuits on the desk. I told her I don't like the brand, so she got me another brand!"
It is distressing how emotionally unfulfilled those children seem to be. Our 3-day-long student camp program lets students work together on a shared project to discover themselves and learn a group of core values and 21st century skills in the process. But, it turns out, children in many public schools have more basic needs.
We cannot change their culture, no matter how long our camp is, but in three days we show them love, care and respect. We help them realize that they deserve appreciation and respect. That they have a choice in how they personally act. That they themselves can be agents of change when they uphold high principles and treat one another with respect and understanding. "What makes those children do better and respond to us is that we provide them with respect and a safe environment," adds Doaa.
Three days seem too short to cause full-on behavioral change. But, we know that a child cannot unlearn what has come to their knowledge. Because of an immersive camp experience they have today, their awareness expands a little bit, and it can change what they do tomorrow.
It's the butterfly effect. It's the minor tweak to a child's consciousness today that may drastically change their future. It's Hana the third grader who started out the camp as a bitter, closed-off bully then turned into a friendly, helpful and compassionate sweetheart. It's Asmaa who couldn't speak in front of her peers without a tremble in her lips and thumping in her chest, but then transformed into a confident presenter who spoke before a judging panel like no one was watching. It's Omar who told us that those were "the best 3 days of his life." It's the two students who took tools and materials home with them on the first day only to return them on the third day of their own accord and apologize for their behavior.
What made Hana choose to stop cursing at everyone and start happily participating? And why did those two children return the things they took if no one actually noticed? We believe it is a consequence of a good rapport between them and their trainers. It is the trainers' knowledge that holding space counts in and of itself and the confidence that something good will come out of it.
One three-day camp is never enough. It’s a work in progress. It tells us how much work needs to be done with the school staff members we train and how many more children need to get a glimpse of who they can become. As Ahmed Galal said, "What we are doing is not the solution per se. but it is a big part of the solution."