In a crowded refugee camp in the middle of the Gaza Strip, two breakdancers perform backflips, one arm handstands and dizzying floorwork for a crowd of enthralled children. The young spectators are encouraged to participate with hops, backbends and star jumps. A few moments later, a bomb explodes in the distance. After a brief pause, activities swiftly resume like nothing has happened, offering a distraction to the children whose clapping, cheering and laughing temporarily drowns out the sounds of war just a few streets away.
This workshop is one of dozens that the Camps Breakerz Crew – the Gaza-based breakdancing school – has hosted in the war-torn region in recent months. Their Instagram page is full of videos of dance battles, freestyle street sessions and show choreography. “This is breakdance,” Camps Breakerz Crew founder Moh ‘Funk’ Ghraiz, 37, shares over Zoom from Chicago. “Whatever you're feeling, whatever you're thinking, whatever you want to do, whatever you want to be, this is the right place,” he says.
Moh’s brother and co-founder, Ahmed ‘Shark’ Alghraiz, 34, is on the ground in Gaza when we speak. As an emergency trauma counsellor and dance educator, he’s providing much-needed psychological relief for children, who make up 47 per cent of the population. “Nobody is safe, no place is safe,” says Ahmed during a patchy WhatsApp audio call, before pulling away from the phone momentarily. “We just heard an airstrike close to us.” At another point during the call – which completely disconnects four times throughout our conversation – a sharp popping sound crackles down the line. “Can you hear the shooting right now?” he asks.
Life for civilians in Gaza has been fraught with death, violence and terror since October 7, when Hamas launched a surprise attack across the border in southern Israel, killing around 1,200 and capturing about 240 hostages. The Israeli military has responded to the raid with a relentless bombardment of airstrikes and a ground offensive that has killed more than 18,600 people, according to the Hamas-run government. The crowded Nuseirat refugee camp where the Camps Breakerz Crew is based was hit by a deadly strike just a few weeks ago. Gaza is now facing a grave humanitarian crisis, as water, food and fuel is becoming more scarce, while internet and phone lines routinely drop out. Earlier this month, a UN official warned that half of Gaza’s population is starving.
“Life is really difficult,” explains Ahmed, who usually lives in Germany but makes annual visits to the Camps Breakerz Crew in Gaza. “There is no food in our area, and we don't get any supplies from out of Gaza.” He says that supplies are being diverted to different parts of the Strip, while most of the shops carrying essentials nearby their camp are closed. “Teaching in this situation is really difficult. We do more than double [the] work because the children are stressed. The children are lost,” he says.
Moh, Ahmed and their younger brother Abdallah ‘Jay’ Alghraiz, 30, were born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents. Moh taught himself breakdancing growing up by copying videos he watched online, and wanted to bring hip-hop culture to Gaza when he moved there in 2002 to pursue nursing. He founded the Camps Breakerz Crew in 2003 before his brothers joined shortly after. They started out hosting workshops and shows all around the Gaza Strip before building their permanent base in 2012 with the help of donations. Now, they work with organisations like Save The Children and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
While the crew faced scepticism at first introducing a western dance form into the conservative community, they found acceptance by giving their dance shows political and social themes, from war and grief to women’s rights. “Now, our neighbourhood is known for [being] the hip-hop spot, the breakdancing spot,” Moh says.
War has been a terrifying reality for generations of children growing up in Gaza ever since the Nakba (“the catastrophe”) in 1948, when the nation of Israel was founded and some 750,000 people were displaced as Zionist troops forced native Palestinians out of their homeland. Israel has continued to seize more Palestinian territory over the past 75 years, while Gaza itself has been subject to an Israeli blockade since Hamas came to power in 2007, restricting the movement of goods and people in a measure that has been deemed unlawful by various human rights organisations.
Today, as airstrikes and gunfire have once again become a daily occurrence in the Gaza Strip, the Camps Breakerz Crew offer escapism for children through dance, movement and meditation. Last year, a report by Save The Children found that four out of five children in Gaza were living with depression, grief and fear. More than half of had contemplated suicide, while three out of five were self-harming.
Ahmed says the numbers of attendees at their classes are increasing every day. Just last week, more than 150 people turned up to their studio, which has full-length mirrors and is splashed with bright graffiti across the walls. “We teach them [about] life, give them a lot of advice – how to be focused, how to take care of mentality, of the body,” he explains. “I want to look at the positive things. We feel so proud. Every day we feel amazed from what we have done in our day.”
Some of the children who have attended their classes over the years have grown up to become members of the team, like Karim Azzam, 25, who now lives in Egypt but is also stuck in Gaza after the October 7 attack. Moh first met him as a talented 11-year-old, and now he’s right beside Ahmed when we speak on the phone. “Look at him now, he's a superhero in Gaza,” says Moh. “He's saving children and he's teaching kids how to dance, how to love life, how to deal with the trauma.”
But the Camps Breakerz Crew have witnessed the tragedy of war up close, too. Back in October, one of their students, 11-year-old Walid, was killed in an airstrike with his entire family. “We welcomed him into the school knowing that he’s a good boy, and he doesn't have [anything] in his mind but dreams and joy, and wants to have fun with everyone else,” Moh says. “He's the one who would come in to enjoy himself, dance with his buddies. He would be like, ‘Okay, I want to become a good breakdancer, I'm going to start learning moves, I'm going to go somewhere with this, I'm going to be free, I want to live my childhood through this’. And he couldn’t. Someone stopped him.”
The threat of airstrikes is all too real for the Camps Breakerz Crew, who say that the local community have expressed concern over so many children being gathered in one place. Ahmed and Azzam recently witnessed a house get bombed about 100 metres away from them, sending debris flying violently into the air before their eyes. They were in shock for about two days after. “You can feel the pressure of the explosion in your body and in your soul,” Ahmed says.
The crew were choreographing a dance showcase before fighting broke out. They were due to decorate their stage on October 7, run through final rehearsals on October 8, and perform the following day. “When I look on my calendar and see that I wrote these dates, I feel disappointed,” Ahmed says. “But at the same time, I'm so happy because of what we are doing during this emergency.”
Watching the team hold the attention of so many children in their videos is a hopeful display of humanity in an otherwise unbearably bleak situation. How do they remain so composed through it all? “Of course, we are all traumatised,” Ahmed says. “But we try and do our best to stay calm and stay focused and know what we are doing and feeling.”
Right now, the crew’s biggest hopes are to see their students grow up and teach the next generation. But they also want a very simple message to resonate around the world. “We are normal people, we are normal artists that want to live,” says Ahmed. “We are peaceful people. We are not like how you watch in your media. We want our rights like anyone in this world.” When Ahmed came to Gaza this year to stage their new show, the Camps Breakerz Crew had no idea how prescient its title would be: Still Alive. “[It was] written before these attacks,” he says. “It fits exactly with what we are going through right now. We are still alive.”
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