Students in the U.S. and Canada told Teen Vogue one way they forged relationships with peers in Gaza was by discussing what brought them joy. They often found they had shared interests. “We have a lot in common,” Fallon*, one of Alexandra’s students, said. “We both like animals and we both love swimming and drawing.”
Dana Ibrahim, who lives in the Canadian city of Mississauga and just graduated Stephen Lewis Secondary School, said she and her pen pal share musical tastes. They both enjoy Shakira, Eminem, and Drake, along with the Arabic singers Tamer Hosny and Hussain Al Jassmi. “It felt like a friendship,” said Ibrahim, “just really long distance.”
Ibrahim is Palestinian, along with some other students at Stephen Lewis, like recent 10th-grade graduate Jana Al Halimi. Both Ibrahim and Al Halimi participated in Pen Palestine through the school’s Palestinian Student Association and were happy to feel a connection to their homeland, where they have distant relatives.
Al Halimi appreciated the opportunity to talk openly about Palestine. Growing up, she felt like such dialogue was often discouraged while in school and the idea of Palestinians having their own homeland was sometimes considered a contentious issue. She remembers a teacher in elementary school showing her a map and pointing out that Palestine didn’t appear on it, only Israel.
“In Canada, there is so much judgment around the issue of Palestine,” Al Halimi told Teen Vogue. “I feel like I’ve been able to talk about it in a safe space. These letters are a way to move forward and talk about your culture.”
Ibrahim and Al Halimi follow Palestinian news, talk about it frequently with their families, and participate in activism related to its future. But for Alexandra’s Berkeley students, who are younger and aren’t Palestinian, learning about the Israel-Palestine situation is new. One of these students, Nayla, told Teen Vogue the project “opened up my brain.” “I’m living pretty comfortably here and I can leave and travel if I want to,” Nayla* said. “I didn’t really notice how some people weren’t able to do those things.” She enjoyed getting to know her pen pal and sees people in Gaza less abstractly now — “not just as people in a war zone.” When she hears news about Palestine or hears people talking about it, she thinks of her pen pal.
For Alexandra’s students, news about Palestine now has people and personalities attached to it. Fallon’s pen pal told her she was living in a rented apartment because last year her house was bombed. “It surprised me that was happening to her,” said Fallon. “I knew she was living in a war zone, but I didn’t know it was really active.”
In May of last year, an estimated 5,400 children in Gaza lost their homes and an estimated 42,000 children had their homes damaged by bombs during the 11-day Gaza war, according to Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.
During summer break, Pen Palestine has been on hold. But Alexandra, Mustafa, and their students hope to continue it. Alexandra plans to have an international Zoom meeting soon with Pen Palestine teachers to set future plans.
Although she just graduated high school, Ibrahim wants to continue writing letters. She wants the project to show children in Gaza that people around the world are thinking about them. “I really hope that this provides the kids with a sense of normalcy,” she said. “The more voices that speak to kids in Gaza, the more they feel supported.”
Editor’s note: Teen Vogue withheld Fallon and Nayla’s last names because they’re minors.
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