Palestinian Red Crescent empowers deaf children

Published: 3 December 2002 0:00 CET

Sébastien Carliez in Ramallah

"When I grow up, I want to be a doctor," says 12-year-old Wala' Al-Jammal, her big, dark eyes open wide. Wala' cannot speak. She communicates with signs. She cannot hear either, so she reads lips.

Since she was born, Wala' has had a profound hearing loss. She is one of 68 hearing-impaired children enrolled in the Total Communication Centre in Ramallah run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS).

Wala's family lives in Beit Surik, a village south-west of Ramallah. Since the beginning of the school year, she and her younger sister and brother, who are both also deaf, have returned to the centre after a two-year absence.

Making the trip into Ramallah every day was simply too long, and sometimes impossible, because of a growing number of checkpoints and roadblocks erected by the Israeli Army since the start of the Intifada.

In the meantime, Wala' went to a mainstream school, close to her home. "The teacher spoke much too fast, and I could not follow what he was saying," she remembers, swiftly moving her lips and fingers together.

Since last October, just like 14 other children originally from remote areas of the West Bank, Wala' spends weekdays at the centre, returning home only at the weekend. "I am happy to be back here so that I can learn again and succeed in my exams." What she likes the most are the Arabic and English lessons - she knows how to write her name in English.

The Total Communication Centre opened its doors in 1993. It is the only institution in the West Bank that teaches deaf children up to eighth grade. Although the curriculum is the same as any other school in the Palestinian territories, the teaching methods are unique.

"Here, children are encouraged to communicate simultaneously using verbal and hand signing, lip-reading but also reading, writing, and speech," explains Suheir Badanneh, director of the centre for the past year and a half.

Speech therapy is given to all children. They learn how to position their lips and breathe correctly so that they can reproduce sounds. Teachers combine group work with individual sessions. "We promote a positive attitude towards individual differences, and focus on the children's elements of strength rather than their weak points," Suheir says.

Muhammad Anqawi's strong points are Arabic and sciences. "Later I would like to study English at university," the 12-year-old boy says with a timid smile. Muhammad will have to wait a little longer, however. This year, he must repeat a class with 17 other children, as he was unable to attend the centre for five months during the last school year, because his home village of Beit Sira, normally a 45-minute drive from Ramallah, was totally cut off from the rest of the West Bank by military closures.

Compared to the hardships outside its walls, the PRCS school seems a privileged environment, with its toy library and computer lab. "We use computers to teach the children how to match pictures with words," explains Shoukri Mahmoud, adding that access to the internet will be soon available for students above 15, as well as for teenagers and adults from the neighbourhood.

Now in his early 40s, Shoukri is deaf himself. He first studied computer sciences, and then specialised in communication disorders at Lamar University, Texas.

But Shoukri is an exception. Most teachers get specific, on-the-job training only as they enter the centre. "Here in Palestine, there are no university degrees in deaf education," regrets Suheir, who started as a mathematics and science teacher.

Although she grew up in mainstream schools, instructor Anji Abd, 36 and also deaf, was taught how to speak by her father, a former teacher. It was only later that she learned sign language, which she has been teaching in the centre for the past 10 years.

"The children and I have a lot in common," she says in amazingly clear Arabic. "Laughing and playing are my ways of transmitting knowledge," Anji explains.

Despite the difficulties, all the teachers remain confident they can meet most of their pupil's educational needs. "When a child enters primary school, he or she already knows how to read and write," says Reem Aleyan, director of the kindergarten. "The way they talk depends on their own ability but also on the role of the family in their education."

With support from psychologists, the teachers work closely with families of the children. "We show the mothers and fathers how to stimulate the skills of their children at home," Suheir explains. "We also ask the parents to talk about their specific needs, so that we can suggest adequate answers."

Before the Intifada, the centre used to give sign language courses to a group of mothers.

The long-term objective of the Total Communication Centre is to help hearing impaired people find a place in a community in which it is not always easy to integrate. "Most people in the Palestinian society do not believe in the capacities of the deaf," Badanneh acknowledges.

Efforts to change this should target young people first, she insists, since children usually have fewer preconceived ideas about disabilities. In this spirit, 50 boys and girls from the centre this year took part, for the first time, in a three-week summer camp together with 100 other children from Ramallah.

"In the end, we would like each of our children to find a job," the director of the centre says, as she watches over pupils playing in the courtyard during the noon break. But she knows the majority of Palestinians in the territories are already jobless, and that the economic situation is unlikely to improve.

Meanwhile in one of the classrooms, Muhammad's brother, eight-year old Islam, signals with his hands his fondest wish for the future: to have his own shop and sell chocolates to the children of Beit Sira.

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