Issue No.
154, February 2011 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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   Thu. December 05, 2019






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The students spend time outside every day where they can play with the children from the other classes.
Ahmed uses the break to play ball with the other students.
Rania is in the class for children with autism at Star Mountain.
In the classes the teachers teach the children basic skills so that they can have as normal a life as possible.
Teaching the children basic skills.

Disabled Children Face a Hard Life
By Sofie Hviid
Ahmad* was 13 years old before anyone knew that he had autism. Most of his life had been spent in a small room at the top of the house, isolated from the rest of the family. His parents would tie his hands behind his back to prevent him from hurting himself. The only furniture in his small room was a thin mattress where he would lie and stare at the wall all day. His brothers and sisters would barely have any contact with him, and he would spend almost all his time on his own.

Ahmad’s story is, sadly enough, not unique. His parents face the same problems as many other parents with intellectually disabled children. Most people in Palestine have no knowledge or awareness about people with intellectual disabilities and what a child with autism needs. Ghada Naser, the director of Star Mountain Rehabilitation Center for intellectually disabled children in Ramallah, explains how they face many challenges, as with the case of Ahmad.

“It is much more difficult for people with intellectual disabilities than for those with physical disabilities. Many people regard people with intellectual disabilities as mad. We have found several children with intellectual disabilities who were kept hidden by their families. Parents are ashamed, they fear being stigmatised, and some even think that a disabled child is a punishment from God.”

A few years ago 20-year-old Aisha was found in a stairwell under the house where her parents had been hiding her for her whole life. She was discovered by coincidence by the community workers at Star Mountain. Along with other organisations for the disabled they contacted the media and got them to put pressure on the family. In the end everyone knew about the abuse and the parents had no choice but to open the door and let their daughter out. Naturally Aisha looked terrible. She was filthy, with long black nails, and her unwashed hair was one big tangle.

Even though the cases of Aisha and Ahmad are some of the more severe examples, the general situation for people with intellectual disabilities is very difficult. Many people in Palestine do not even know what special education is. When you talk about children with special needs most people think about children with physical handicaps. Nobody talks about intellectual disabilities and there is no awareness about what these children need. Children with intellectual disabilities are invisible which makes working with them and their parents very difficult.

Many parents do not cooperate with the school as much as they could. Children need training at home too, but in most cases this does not happen even though it would be a significant help towards children’s development. A disabled child takes up a lot of time and many families do not feel that they have this extra time. In Palestine it is normal to have big families, and the mother has many responsibilities; making food for the family, cleaning the house, and taking care of many children take up a lot of her time. Palestinian families face many difficulties, and every day can often be a struggle because of poverty and unemployment. Therefore the mother might think that she has the right to sacrifice her disabled child to serve the needs of her other children even though this sounds harsh and cruel.

This is one of the reasons that community work is so important. Teachers visit the families and the members of the community and try to change their perception of people with intellectual disabilities. Rehabilitation centres cannot absorb everyone; thus community work can be a valuable means to reach more people and train the families how to work with their children.

Through these activities, community workers aim to raise awareness about people with disabilities. And it does make a difference, Ghada Naser explains. Local community institutions and individuals become more supportive of the work with the disabled and more aware of their rights and needs. Recently Star Mountain was financially unable to continue to provide the children with a daily meal, so they approached the community. Through the community’s response, they have now secured the means to provide this meal. They receive donations from an egg farm and factories that provide food every week. This is considered to be a direct result of the awareness-raising work within the community.

The lack of awareness has other and far more tragic consequences for disabled children, as they are much more at risk of being abused by people around them. In most cases, abuse of children with disabilities remains hidden and has no consequences since people with disabilities are often unable to express themselves. And even if they are, others will not believe them. The teachers at Star Mountain know of many stories where shopkeepers, relatives of the disabled, and young people in the village have sexually abused a disabled child. Most stories are never told, because there is a taboo on talking about sexual abuse. The teachers do not know how to approach the families. Sexual abuse is not something you can talk to the family about because it is considered an honour issue. Most families would rather risk that the abuse of their child continue than risk that the abuse become common knowledge. It is a cultural problem, and the disabled cannot expect to get help from the politicians on this issue since it is not yet fully perceived as an urgent priority to work on, Ghada Nasser explains.

“The issue was raised on a national governmental level, and one of the suggestions to “protect” a girl with disabilities was to remove her uterus so that if the girl were abused, at least she would not become pregnant. If this is the attitude towards abuse of the disabled, it will be very difficult to change anything. Therefore some kind of system of cooperation should exist among the government, the NGOs, and local communities so that people with disabilities can be protected and that families can get the help that they need.”

Star Mountain Rehabilitation Centre is one of the few places where families can come to get help. Yet due to lack of space and resources, many people are turned away even though there are very few other possibilities for help. There are no public support services. In the Ramallah area there are five institutions for children with intellectual disabilities, but they are all run by private organisations. A place like Star Mountain relies on financial help from various organisations around the world as well as from the income that they can generate themselves by selling products made by the disabled people and by having guests stay at their guest house. The fact that there are not enough resources, however, is a big problem. The children who are accepted into one of the centres for disabled children are very lucky, but even these institutions cannot guarantee financial sustainability.

It is a big problem that there are no national organisations to take care of the intellectually disabled. Among the programme participants at Star Mountain is a 55-year-old woman, though she is much too old to be there. She has nowhere else to go, and the situation in her home is terrible. She is beaten by her family, and the few hours she spends at Star Mountain four days a week are better than nothing. The problem is that people with intellectual disabilities are not integrated into society, and there are no jobs for them. On a national level there are very few centres or boarding schools that will take care of the children who are too old or too sick to stay at one of the private institutions. Some children even die because their parents keep them isolated and do not take care of them.

People with disabilities are simply not a part of the political agenda in Palestine. Yet even though this is the case, Ghada Naser does not blame the Palestinian government for the lack of services and support.

“We are under occupation and still somehow independent. Internally we have problems among our political parties, so it is obvious that the disabled will not be the priority. The politicians will deal with how to negotiate for peace and how to improve the relationships among the political parties. When there is some kind of relative peace and things are working well on a political level, then the social issues will be tackled,” she says.

Ms. Majida Al-Masri who is the Minister of Social Affairs in the Palestinian Authority admits that the disabled are the responsibility of the government. She promises that there will be more focus on the needs of the disabled in the near future.

“Now we are working with NGO’s and the private sector to create a national plan for people with disabilities in the West Bank and Gaza. We have a national board and a budget from the government that will allow us to research the problems of the disabled and to begin to activate the law of the disabled. This will be within our strategy and will be implemented in 2011-2013,” says the Minister of Social Affairs.

The girl who was found in the stairwell is today staying at a private institution in Hebron. Although she is doing better, there are hundreds of cases like her throughout the country. In a refugee camp close to Ramallah two sisters who are intellectually disabled are being kept isolated and hidden away in their rooms. Even though people know about them, the family refuses to cooperate. And therefore no organisations can help them. One of them used to be a student at Star Mountain and she learned how to do many things by herself. Now all she does is pull out the hair from her head and eyebrows. No one knows what the future holds for these two girls.

Sofie Hviid is a Danish journalist who lived in Ramallah between August and December 2010. During that time she studied Arabic, pursued research for her thesis in journalism, and took classes at Birzeit University. Ms. Hviid worked as a volunteer in communications at Star Mountain.

Article photos by Sofie Hviid.

*The names of the children in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
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