Deaf children benefit from education, work in besieged Gaza

08:32, April 23, 2010      

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Sherihan Zeyada, 24, seems to oscillate between her shyness and a high desire to communicate. Working in the pottery-painting unit, she is one of thousands annual beneficiaries of Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children located in Gaza City.

"Atfaluna" is an Arabic word meaning "our children" and the society has been working in the field of deaf education and allied services since 1992. The organization runs a full time school for pupils aged from four to 17, and helps deaf children and adults to reach their full potential by providing quality education, health care, social services, and work opportunities.

Entering the huge building surrounded by a park, the peaceful atmosphere is particularly impressive because silence is unusual in the crowded and tiny Palestinian enclave, one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

"I joined Atfaluna when I was 15 years old. I got to know all kind of works in the vocational training units and chose to paint ceramic cups and plates. I want to stay here forever because I loved the people and the work here from the first day," said Sherihan, speaking in Palestinian sign language to an interpreter.

Different kinds of hearing impairments are existing in Gaza where 1.5 million people live under an Israeli blockade for three years. The hearing problems vary, depending on their type, severity, and the age of onset. They can be inherited, due to diseases, illness, physical trauma or to a long-term exposure to environmental noise. Treatments and assistive technologies differ and hundreds of sign languages are used between the communities of deaf people around the world.

"I got a high fever when I was a baby and became deaf. My mother taught me lip-reading. I was educated in a normal school but I faced a lot of difficulties when the teacher spoke too fast or turned his head aside," she added.

Contrary to a lot of children affected by the hearing loss, Sherihan said that at school she did not suffer from the social isolation due to the children's slower social development and their inability to pick up auditory social stimuli that elicit or signal a type of behavior.

"However, when I was 13, the principal told me that it will be too hard for me to complete my education because I had special needs. I spent two years at home, doing nothing for myself and taking care of my siblings before knowing about the services provided by Atfaluna."

Nevertheless, like the inhabitants of Gaza, this special needs collectivity is hit severely by the ongoing siege imposed by Israel in June 2007 after the Hamas movement's takeover of Gaza.

"Atfaluna is suffering from the closure too. We cannot receive new hearing aids or batteries, toys for the children, computers or others material. According to the audiology unit, the number of beneficiaries who regularly come to check their hearing aids or for other services reaches 11,000. So a lot of people are depending on hearing equipment," said Lana Matar, Atfaluna public relations officer.

"Furthermore, our unique hand-crafted products cannot be exported anymore to our international clients," she added. Lana said exact figures on the number of deaf in Gaza were not yet clear and that her organization searched for them and encouraged families to send their needy children to take use of the services Atfaluna provides.

Whatever the circumstances, life goes ahead inside and outside the center. In the audiology department, deaf people are creating plastic molds in an attempt to provide alternative hearing aid equipment. Previous women beneficiaries open their own embroidery business at home and help to supplement the family income.

Sherihan is pregnant for the second time. "I met my husband, Mohamed, 23, in Atfaluna. While working, we had time to know each other for seven years: it is a real love story! But as Mohamed is deaf too, both our families refused that we get engaged and one of the social worker had to work hard to convince our parents," said Sherihan.

"My mother is taking care of our eight-month son until I finish working at the center. Then I prepare dinner after we met our friends. We have a lot of friends with normal hearing ability. We are not lonely or isolated," said the woman.



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