Karen Jernigan - It was in a West Bank classroom in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, that I realized that the students and I were in the middle of another kind of war. I learned quickly that this war, one that I came in contact with for the first time through the eyes of my students, seeks to say anything and everything about what desires can be held hostage in the heart and in the mind when simply trying to survive. Youth in the West Bank know what matters most to them. These students have treasures in their hearts- Peace, an end to war. Justice…Freedom.
In the town of Beit Jala death, violence, and fear rang out from the nearby hillside, gunshots were frequent. My ten-year-old students could stare me blank in the face as if it meant nothing – they could mid-sentence spell the word mammal in Science class and in the same breath describe in detail what type of gun was being fired, how far away it was and who was shooting. I realized quickly that these students knew much more than me about what it is like to live in the crossfires of survival and captivity. I realized quickly that any thread of hope and freedom, of desire and of dreaming, was precious to them and it was still in tact. Hope and freedom were uncovered in their poems and in their illustrations. My 5th and 6th grade students created illustrated poems about Hope and Freedom and what these words mean to them given their situation, living in the West Bank. Landscape and culture, home, filtered their poems.
What did they write about and illustrate? Peace. Friendship. A homeland where there was no more violence and peace reigned.
Project Hope + Freedom (pH + F) is an international art collaborative that focuses on the power and the strength that is found in the collective creative processes of poetry writing, illustrating and animating short films, photography and in curating a poetic and film documentary traveling art exhibition. The project begins with Palestinian students, ages 10-14, and their poems that have been collected from the West Bank. Here, wars’ footprints have inspired writings and illustrations that aspire for peace. These illustrated poems express what is treasured most about hope and freedom. In this context, the words are defined by dreams of friendship, home, empowerment and peace. From the classroom in the West Bank to the ends of the earth, to America and back again ten years later, pH + F also discovers that through mentoring youth in writing, film and photography, the core beliefs and perceptions of self can both communicate the powerful dreams and aspirations that are found when defining what hope and freedom mean. A journey through the creative processes empowers youth to discover the reality of the existence of hope and freedom in the now. This reality can propel youth to places of empowerment and forward-thinking living that can truly inspire positive change.
Having lived and taught in the West Bank and having worked with youth on all sides and of all ages, I’ve discovered how important it is to empower through the arts. I want to help others through creative writing, illustrating, film and photography. Why? Because of my own story and how writing has liberated me. I was enlightened by my formers students in the West Bank – their poems of hope and freedom, amidst such a difficult situation, confirmed to me the treasures that are in their hearts of such faith. Their faith in their dreams was still possible despite their circumstance.
I’ve met with film makers, I’ve submitted the poems to publishing houses, I’ve screen-printed Elias’s poem onto a big white canvass as inspiration to do an art opening and I’ve been working alongside an Arab-Israeli friend who has a vision to start a youth mentoring NGO in the West Bank. I promised my former students that I would try to publish their poems – my words haunt me and I’ll continue to try to do this. How great would it be if the youth were mentored and were free to express their dreams through the process of writing! Their poems are all about wanting peace, friendship, to be some body, to be heard.
Karen Jernigan is an international business development consultant who holds an MA in International Studies with concentrations in Human Rights and The Middle East. Karen has lived, worked and traveled extensively throughout the MENA region and is compelled by the powerful universal language of art and its ability to create positive change. In 2002, Karen was a teacher in the West Bank where she began to collect illustrated poetry from youth who dreamed of peace.