Changemakers: using the internet to bring language alive for Palestinian kids

In Gaza, freedom of movement is limited but thanks to the Hands Up Project, students can reach far beyond their immediate environs and learn with a global community.

Nick Bilbrough has helped hundreds of people, but more often than not they’ll never meet – instead they get to know each other via internet link across continents. His charity, The Hands Up Project, helps teach English to children in Palestine using volunteers, webcams and storytelling.

In Gaza where freedom of movement is limited and many children feel isolated, Bilbrough and his network of dozens of volunteers tune in to let Palestinian children share their rich culture and take an interest in those beyond their own, all while helping their English skills come on leaps and bounds.

In the late 1980s, Bilbrough left his Gloucestershire home for drama school in Denmark. He became interested in the power of storytelling and in language learning. He went on to specialise as a teacher of English as a foreign language, and spent time teaching all over the globe; Brazil, Chile, Japan. Now 50, he lives in Totnes, Devon with decades of training teachers under his belt. But he left it all behind when a bit of small-scale volunteering done from his living room grew into an international charity.

After a short trip to Palestine with the British Council where he led teacher training, Bilbrough wanted to contribute more to the schools he was welcomed into. “They’re learning English and they’ve got great teachers with a very high level of English,” he explains. “They are very creative and use lots of interesting activities in their classes, but they don’t have the opportunity to interact with people outside of their immediate context.”

When it started, Bilbrough was still working as a teacher trainer at Plymouth Marjon University. He got in touch with Gaza organisation Tamer Institute for Community Education and set up a video link once a week with a group of children in Beit Hanoun library. He told them stories in English, and soon the group grew. More children heard about it and wanted to come to the sessions; teachers in Gaza heard about it and requested something similar be set up with their schools.

Much of his time was taken up by timetables alone, as he wrangled with three time zones. So he started training other people and, five months later in 2016, launched the charity.

Around 40 people, mostly English teachers, now volunteer for the Hands Up Project on a weekly basis. They’re spread across the UK, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Turkey. One volunteer in Mexico gets up at 5am every Sunday to work with a group of children in Gaza.

“The project has changed,” says Bilbrough. “When it started it was very much about telling stories to the kids. But we realised that actually, they’ve got lots of stories to tell themselves.” Around 500 children a week attend one session,
in groups from 10 anywhere up to 50.

Keen to play off their passions, Bilbrough set up a playwriting competition for Palestinian children. They were tasked with writing a five-minute play in English, with a maximum of five actors, to be recorded and sent to the judging panel (which included comedian Alexei Sayle and John ‘Nasty Nick Cotton’ Altman, as well as Palestinian judges). In the first year there were 88 entries; that shot up to 180 a year later.

“We take all the finalists out of Gaza to perform their plays in the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, as well as in the refugee camp in Bethlehem.

The founder continues: “They get local kids involved too. One of the aims of our charity is to unite people and connect people who are from different parts of Palestine together. It’s beneficial all round.”

The charity published a book of 30 of the works, Toothbrush and Other Plays. And drawing on his theatre days, Bilbrough also works with schools around Gaza to help set up afterschool drama clubs.

The charity, which relies on hard-won grants and regular donations from the public, also links classes of children up – one group in Greece has got to know a Gazan group via video link, with another in Italy. Sometimes the children will make a local recipe in front of the camera, explaining the ingredients and the steps in English for their friends in another country.

“The thing I hear most often from people is that it made their English come alive,” Bilbrough explains. “They think they’re never going to leave Gaza, then suddenly they meet a remote volunteer and think wow, it’s actually quite interesting to talk in English to somebody – it’s a way for me to tell my story.”