MCC Photo/Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Siraa Moghrabi (12), a young leader at the Shoroq wa-Amal (Sunrise and Hope) Children’s Center of MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association, helps children with an art activity.

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – Twelve-year-old Siraa Moghrabi crouches beside student after student, helping the 6- and 7-year-olds and their mothers arrange flowers on their art projects. Moghrabi dreams of being a teacher some day and in many ways is already becoming one.

Moghrabi is growing in her understanding of what it means to be a leader through experience and also through leadership training. “Leadership means feeling responsible, to be confident, to be brave, to think creatively,” she said.

Moghrabi is a leader at Shoroq wa-Amal (Sunrise and Hope) Children’s Center of the Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA) in the southern Gaza Strip. A Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner, CFTA operates three centers that run arts, drama, education, sports and other programs. The project is supported by MCC’s Global Family education program.

Leadership training is integrated into the centers’ activities, which provide opportunities for learning and expression for Gazan children and their young leaders. Many children at CFTA have been traumatized by violence and bombings they have witnessed because of fighting between Israel and Gaza.

Dan Bergen, an MCC representative for Palestine and Israel, said CFTA believes the leadership program that trains youth such as Moghrabi instills a strong sense of confidence and positive interaction with peers and provides a basis for coping with the stress that accompanies those trying to live under siege. Bergen and his spouse, Joanna Hiebert Bergen, also an MCC representative, are from Winnipeg, Man.

Some of the youth, including Moghrabi, become leaders when their peers elect them. Others work their way up to leadership programs through CFTA’s passport program for teens, ages 13-17.

At CFTA’s Bunat Al Ghad (Builders of the Future) Center, the youth can earn a passport resembling an official document. Getting a passport – even an unofficial one – is meaningful to them because few Gazans have the chance to use actual passports due to border closures by Israel and Eqypt.

To use their passport, the youth apply what they learn in school by planning and participating in 10 activities, such as science experiments, educational workshops and even talent shows. After they earn a green passport, they can earn a blue or red passport with continued leadership activities.

Young leaders with green passports receive leadership skills training and participate in activities planned by administrators and other young leaders. Those with blue passports receive advanced leadership skills training and are leaders at part of the center, such as the library or science lab. Those with red passports are part of the leadership committee.

“A red passport means you are a top manager and have direct access to administrators of the center to discuss what activities children might participate in,” said Hafez Jamil Al Masri, 18, who has a red passport. He entered the program in 2009.

With his previous passport, Al Masri planned a workshop for children on the negative effects of smoking. He invited a doctor to speak and the children’s parents to attend. Currently, he is organizing a talent show with two other leaders. He is eager to see other children show their talents in singing, beatboxing (vocal percussion) and theater.

Walid Nabahin, monitoring and evaluating officer at CFTA, said the passport program allows the young leaders “to feel responsible, build their confidence, and give back to the community. And they can have a passport like many other people in the world.”

Moghrabi isn’t a participant in the passport program; she designed her own election campaign and competed for votes from other youth. In 2011, Moghrabi’s peers elected her to be a first-time leader and in 2013 to be the primary leader of CFTA’s summer camp.

She is also a leader at her school’s library and at home. She helps some of her siblings – four boys and five girls altogether – study for school in the evenings. When her mother is not home, she often dresses her kindergarten-age brother and prepares him for school.

“Being a leader at CFTA has increased my desire to be a leader in other parts of my life now and my desire to be a leader in the future,” she said. Her mother and father are two of the best leaders in her life, she said, “because they care for me and my siblings.”

Sheldon C. Good is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.