We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
My teaching schedule here in Nablus is pretty jam packed, but last week a special event was squeezed into my schedule. I wasn’t given many details, but I knew it was an event designed to integrate mentally handicapped students with their peers at a school. Since I hadn’t heard mention about the mentally handicapped population of Palestine before, I was interested to see what the event would be like.It was held in Askar camp, one of the many underserviced and overcrowded refugee camps in the West Bank.
When I arrived at the school I was brought into a courtyard where there was a small group of people clustered in the far end, near the entrance to a kindergarten. I approached a teacher and asked what needed to be done, and she brought me on a small tour of the facilities, explaining the situation as we went.
She told me that there is no official program for the mentally handicapped students; rather, their education is a patchwork woven together by volunteers and teachers like herself who spend their free time with the students. Since the school opened in 1992 they have been coming every day and learning basic life skills, songs, daily routines and whatever else the teachers can come up with. She said that 23 students used to come, but a new bus only has room for ten; the other 13 were told they must stay at home unless their parents could transport them on their own.
A 2000 study by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found just over 46,000 Palestinians were disabled, which is about 1.8% of the population. In 2003 The International Press Center reported on the recently disabled, who are casualties of the current conflict, adding another 36,488 to that number. These thousands of people face serious barriers, including limited physical access, lack of education programs and a very little international or public funding. A World Bank report summarized their situation thus: “There is no consensus-based, comprehensive, national strategy with specific implementation plan and related priority programs to address physical and mental health rehabilitation needs.”
Despite these statistics, my afternoon with the students was inspiring. We played games and sang songs, took pictures and made funny faces. A group of Palestinian men in their early twenties took the lead, banging a drum and singing verses that the students would repeat to the staccato rhythm. A crowd of kindergarten students gathered around and the hope of the event was realized: the students all sang together, handicaps and differences fading away in the beat of the drum. I was particularly impressed by the teacher who first showed me around; even though she is a refugee herself, and teaches energetic children all day long, she still finds the motivation to work with the disabled children sitting in the courtyard. As long as there are people like her in the world we will continue chipping away at these problems, ten students at a time.