The Children of Ibdaa:
To Create Something Out of Nothing
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  Smith's History with 'The Children of Ibdaa'

In 1996 and 1997, I traveled around the world to immerse myself in other cultures. As I made my way from Southeast Asia through Nepal and India and into the Arab world, I became increasingly disillusioned about the lifestyles and ways of the Western world. Out of money and interested to remain out of the West for as long as possible, I went to Israel with the simple idea that Israel's relationship to the U.S. might allow me, an American citizen, to gain a work permit, and it's physical positioning to the Arab world would allow for more journeying into foreign lands.

I was attracted to the communal theory behind the kibbutz system. After several weeks on a rural kibbutz, I experienced the contemporary shortcomings of this system. The labor required to operate the agricultural and domestic grounds was done by travelers like me and by day laborer Palestinians while the majority of Israelis worked in a nearby city. I was working in a factory for a few shekels a week in exchanged for cramped living quarters and a limited meal service.

I moved to Tel Aviv thinking that the city would offer more appealing and lucrative opportunities, especially for an English speaker. I wrote English letters for a businessman and worked in a beachside bar.

Consumed by the challenging practicalities of day to day living as an immigrant in a big city, I was unable to travel throughout the region as I had envisioned.

After 10 months I returned to the U.S. and realized that I had not learned much more about the lives of Palestinians than I had known prior to living in Israel proper.

I pursued learning about the Arab world through a University class that critically examined the U.S. policy in the Middle East. I then revisited the Middle East region, this time focusing on the Arab world.

I became not just interested, but enchanted by aspects of the Arab world I discovered in Jordan and in Egypt, and became more determined to visit the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In the summer of 1998 I became part of a 5 person 'Fact-Finding Delegation' that visited Israelis and Palestinians, conservatives and liberals. These meetings included civilians, social service workers, a rabbi, the spiritual leader of Hamas, a settler, and more. It was during this trip that I first went to Dheisheh refugee camp.

Dhiesheh camp has a population of over 12,000 refugees in a square kilometer. It is adjacent to the city of Bethlehem, about 15 minutes from Jerusalem.

When I first approached Dheisheh camp, I saw tightly packed concrete structures and narrow dirt alleyways. As I stepped into the camp I saw and felt much more. I saw not an impoverished and downtrodden people, but experienced a vibrant and hospitable community.

My initial concern was that I would be met with trepidation or hostility. After all, I am a citizen of the country that supports and maintains the occupation under which this population suffers.

Rather, I was met with smiles that gave way to heartfelt conversations. "Do the Americans know that we live like this?" I was asked.

That afternoon, I was introduced to the members of the Ibdaa dance troupe. In Arabic "Ibdaa' translates roughly as 'to create something out of nothing." It is a sentiment the troupe's founders feel captures the vibrancy of the troupe against the bleak backdrop of their politicized lives. (For the dance troupe history, please see Ibdaa History).

The young dancers, ages 12-14, performed in the schoolyard of the refugee camp and wore brightly colored costumes reminiscent of traditional Palestinian clothing. The performance incorporates traditional debke dance with theatrical interpretations of the Palestinian history, struggle, and aspirations.

I was not just impressed, but inspired by the motivation this youth group has to commit to such a uniquely creative and non-violent expression despite the oppressive circumstances of their lives. (For more information on the Ibdaa dance troupe and Dhiesheh refugee camp, please visit

At the end of the delegation tour, I had experienced many of the facets that compose the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It became clear to me that regardless of history and perspectives, only one sub-group is forced to live without basic human rights. The Palestinian refugees living in the camps of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are without access to ample food, water, and social services. Their educational and medical facilities are understaffed and overcrowded and unable to meet the needs of the population. The Palestinians are denied freedom of movement and live with constant humiliation and fear at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

In December 1999 the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA) of Berkeley, California ( organized the first US tour for the Ibdaa Dance troupe. The troupe had visited European cities since 1994, but had never visited the U.S. I found this surprising, considering the influence the U.S. has over Palestinian lives.

The tour was an overwhelming success. It raised $60,000 for the refugee camp, and increased the awareness about the lives and history of the Palestinian refugees in major US cities. The money raised went toward the Ibdaa Cultural Center. Please see

I was approached by MECA to be the videographer of the performances in the San Francisco Bay Area. While filming I received countless inquires from audiences eager to see a film about the Ibdaa kids.

MECA sponsored my trip to Dheisheh camp in January 2000. I spent a month living with the Ibdaa kids and learning about life in a refugee camp. This experience became The Children of Ibdaa: To Create Something Out of Nothing.