The war-ravaged Al Shujaeya neighborhood in Gaza City is still a scene of wrecked buildings and rubble, but the children continue to enjoy their playtime at the Right to Live Society. Remarkably, the playground survived the 2014 war and has been preserved as an oasis of hope for 300 Gaza children with Down syndrome and autism.

ANERA built the playground in 2010 in cooperation with Playgrounds for Palestine. It was made primarily from recycled materials after the 2007 blockade of Gaza made it impossible to bring in the appropriate building materials. The playground equipment was specially designed to meet the needs of children with disabilities.

“It surprised all of us to see it intact,” said Ibrahim Junidi, the Society’s director of programs. “Almost all our buildings were damaged or impacted by the war. This is the only thing that survived.”

Some students were moving around the play area, enjoying every moment of their 45-minute break. “It’s part of our daily routine,” Ibrahim explains as he keeps an eye on the children playing around him. “Spring is the perfect time for the children to enjoy their right to play.”

Playing is crucial for children in Gaza

Gaza children with down syndrome yasmeen and Abdulaleem

Abdulaleem Abu Abdeh, a 10-year-old with Down Syndrome, loves playing with his teacher Yasmeen.

Ibrahim explains that playtime is essential for children with disabilities as a part of their body and mind therapy. Designing a playground to fulfill the needs is a challenge, especially because there is a lack of appropriate materials and expertise in Gaza. “The playground addresses different aspects of their psychological and physical abilities,” he explains. “Mentors use the spiral part, for instance, to foster attentiveness while the slides invigorate body movement and flexibility.”

“The survival of this playground represents hope.”

Although children with Down syndrome may not be at the same cognitive level of children their age, their behavior in the playground does not differ from children without any developmental delays. “It’s been observed that both groups of children develop similar trends toward playing,” he added.

Abdulaleem Abu Abdeh, came to the Society to be regularly examined shortly after he was born, under the early intervention program. Thanks to the early diagnosis, the 10-year-old now excels in writing, reading and counting. He also loves playtime with his teacher, Yasmeen Shaabat. “The playground represents another opportunity for kids with disabilities to thrive,” she says. She adds that rehabilitating the society after the war is crucial to resuming its important activities.

“Our children deserve a better future. Although our hearts are still full of pain from the war, the survival of this playground represents hope,” she says.

What is the Right to Live Society?

The Right to Live Society was established in 1993 as the first and only society to care for Gazans with Down syndrome. Students at the non-government organization are given the tools and special education to live as productive members of society. The center has a year round schedule for the children, including dance classes, art crafts, play, carpentry, and other skills classes. The center aims to raise awareness and help those with Down syndrome and extend its services to all of Gaza.

View slideshow to see more photos.

gaza children with down syndrome Abdulaleem and yasmeen 2
gaza children with down syndrome boy on spiral
gaza children with down syndrome view of playground
gaza children with down syndrome Abdulaleem on playground
gaza children with down syndrome girl on slide smiling
gaza children with down syndrome two kids on slide
gaza children with down syndrome yasmeen and girl
gaza children with down syndrome abdulaleem

Abdulaleem looks lovingly at his favorite teacher, Yasmeen.

A boy plays on the spiral part of the playground, which Ibrahim says helps foster attentiveness.

In the war-ravaged neighborhood of Al Shujaeya, the vibrant playground is a very special sight.

A child proudly shows off his acrobatic skills with the help of a teacher.

The playground brings smiles to the faces of children in a part of Gaza that's seen too much destruction and tragedy.

Two friends pose for a photo at the bottom of the slide.

A child gives a hug to her teacher Yasmeen during playtime at the center.

Abdulaleem was diagnosed with Down syndrome at a young age. He now excels in reading, writing, and counting.

gaza children with down syndrome Abdulaleem and yasmeen 2 thumbnail
gaza children with down syndrome boy on spiral thumbnail
gaza children with down syndrome view of playground thumbnail
gaza children with down syndrome Abdulaleem on playground thumbnail
gaza children with down syndrome girl on slide smiling thumbnail
gaza children with down syndrome two kids on slide thumbnail
gaza children with down syndrome yasmeen and girl thumbnail
gaza children with down syndrome abdulaleem thumbnail

Forty-five-year-old Amna Odeh hesitantly steps into Dar Salah’s medical center hoping to get immediate care. Fatigued, skeletal and barely able to walk, she informs the doctor on duty she has Addison’s disease, a rare chronic disorder. The doctor knows exactly what to give her.

Fortunately for Amna, ANERA has recently delivered a significant donation of medical supplies, including a steroid medication called Dexamethasone, from long-time donor AmeriCares. One tablet a day of the potent medicine can replace the usual three injections for an Addison’s patient, making treatment more convenient and tolerable. The medication has been delivered to several health clinics, centers and hospitals around the West Bank, including the medical center in the village of Dar Salah.

For Amna,this steroid medication is vital to survival. Rendered unemployed by her disease, Amna relies on donated medicines.

Dr. Rani Abu-Qaddoum, the center’s director, explains that Addison’s disease is caused by a dysfunction in the adrenal glands that stops the production of essential steroid hormones. He says the hormones’ importance to the body is like gasoline to a car. Without it, you cannot function at all. Acute joint pain, fatigue, stomach aches, low blood pressure, dark pigmented skin and dizziness are common signs.

“Amna may be the only patient in Dar Salah diagnosed with Addison,” adds Dr. Abu Qaddoum.” There are only eight diagnosed cases in the entire district of Bethlehem.”

Amna had been suffering in silence for five years. She had to quit her job at a clothing factory because of the effects of her illness. Amna is illiterate and has no alternate source of income. “My health was deteriorating and that forced me to quit my job. I could no longer commute to work or operate a sewing machine. It was too exhausting,” she explains.

She sought medical attention elsewhere but could not afford the medication because of her difficult financial situation, so she tried to treat herself with painkillers. She did not realize she was harming her health. Amna also was not aware that she could get the medicine at her local clinic now free of charge.

Amna holds donated medicine

With the new steroid medication, Amna will be much healthier and happier.

Donated Medicines Ease Suffering Across Palestine

Amna beams with delight and relief when she hears that the donated medication is free. One course (seven tablets) of this medicine would have cost her $15. The doctor tells Amna he expects to see her once a month for a routine checkup. But he reminds her that she can call the center whenever she feels unusually tired, dizzy or nauseous.

“Without medication, Amna wouldn’t be able to perform the simplest of tasks,” he says. “For patients like her, this medication being donated means the world.”

The medicine is also used to treat some 30 cases of inflammatory and upper respiratory tract infections and acute diseases. The center, like many others in the West Bank, depends on donated medical supplies to survive and continue serving its patients. “With fluctuating weather conditions, germs are spreading and more people are prone to more common diseases,” Dr. Abu Qaddoun says. And then he smiles with relief, “This medicine came just in the nick of time.”

AmeriCares has been providing medical supplies and medicines, from vitamins and antibiotics to medication for chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, since the start of ANERA’s In-Kind program in 1993. Among its most significant donations are chronic disease medications that treat hypertension and diabetes.

Laila El-Hazeen took a deep sigh when she looked at the new clean street before her in El Nusairat, Gaza. Her face showed signs of relief marking the end of a life-long struggle with unpleasant smell and unceasing worries day and night. “My children cross the street to go to school. I used to cautiously helped the younger ones by holding their hands, or my husband would carry them on his back. My older kids rolled up their pants’ legs to pass the overflowed streets hoping to reach schools clean and dry,” she said.

gaza sewage network laila and maram

Laila and her daughter Maram stand in front of their home.

The mother of five children describes how it felt to live on this street  before the new sanitation project was completed. “Before the wastewater network was installed, sewage used to flood into the streets of the neighborhood,” said Laila, who lives in an unfinished house with walls made of old sheets. Her own mother, Marriam, sits next to Laila and shares the same concerns: “Life before the wastewater project was terrible. A huge pool of sewage used to be here. It’s so threatening for the little ones,” she echoed.

Like many of the residents of El Nusairat, the family excavated a septic tank to cope with the lack of an appropriate drainage system. People discharged their sewage into those cesspits. The cesspits, often ‘homemade’, were inadequate and sewage would frequently overflow onto the streets.

Yet the misery continued with twofold struggles: a horrible stench and hovering insects during summer and overflow of Gaza sewage in wintertime. “The worst time of the year for us was during winter when the septic tanks would overflow, and the sewage would mix with the winter rain. It was horrible. I was worried about my house being indulged with unsafe water.”

Moreover, the septic tanks had to be emptied by trucks; “We had to call the municipality trucks 3 times a month to empty them. Each time, it cost us 50 NIS (about $12.50),” Laila added.

With the completion of this project, Laila’s life is now easier. “We have already buried the old tanks. Now, we enjoy the clean street instead.”

Gaza sewage network Ahmed eldest son

Ahmed, a 9th grader, is Laila’s eldest son. It’s now safe for him to ride through the streets to visit a friend nearby.

Clean Streets Ease Life for Residents

Walking a bit further in the street, Isam El-Hazeen was chatting with his two grand kids. Despite the fact that he had a severe fracture in his left leg, he went out to enjoy the fresh breeze. “The situation was bad. It hurt us a lot when the cesspits flooded; they caused a huge problem,” said Isam, who has lived in this area for the past 10 years.

gaza sewage network Isam and grandkids

Isam and his grand kids sit outside, enjoying the clean streets.

“We used to fear to open our windows. Infection was very common among children because of the sewage,” Isam explained. “I worried my grandchildren would be infected with diarrhea while playing out. We could not detain children all day long. They insisted to go outside for a bit to play with other kids,” he said. Now, he says the family is able to open the window to allow some fresh draft to flow inside the house. “I enjoy watching the kids playing with balls or on bikes.”

The new efficient sewage disposal system helped to improve health and hygiene for 500 people in El Nusairat, so they can enjoy a better environment. This project is part of Phase II of the Urgent Water System Repair Project, funded by Islamic Relief USA, which aims to implement six sanitation systems in the most impoverished communities in El Maghazi, Deir El Balah, Wadi Salqa, El Nusairat, Rafah and El Shuka.

ANERA recently completed 6 projects under Phase I, which improved water networks and household water connections for 5,000 individuals in war-ravaged areas of Gaza, generating a reliable source of water for cooking, showering and drinking.

The Urgent Water System Repair Project consists of three phases and aims to implement a total of 18 water and sanitation projects throughout different location in Gaza; reaching more than 12,000 beneficiaries by the end of the project in June 2015.

Gaza sewage network street view-fixed

Children safely walk to school now that the streets are clean and dry.

Dozens of patients feeling under the weather sit waiting their turn to see the doctor at Hebron’s charitable medical center. “Fluctuating weather conditions, such as the conditions we are currently experiencing, can weaken one’s immune system, making it more susceptible to bacteria and germs that thrive in such a habitat,” explains Wael Rajabi, the medical center’s family doctor.

Luckily for the center’s patients, ANERA recently received a shipment of medicine from Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), which included a large donation of Azithromycin antibiotics. ANERA delivered the medicine to several charitable clinics, centers and hospitals in the West Bank, including Hebron. The medication is given free of charge to the neediest patients.

Hebron clinic Dr.Rajabi

Dr. Rajabi, a clinic doctor, is thankful for the medicines ANERA delivers.

And, it’s not just the patients who benefit. The donated medicines help the charitable center sustain its services. “When antibiotics that are chronically needed each winter are donated to us, it eases our financial burden,” says Dr. Rajabi. “When fundamental medications fill our shelves, it allows us to provide our patients with other vital medications and services that otherwise might be unavailable or unaffordable.”

Like several healthcare providers across the West Bank, the Hebron center has a longstanding partnership with ANERA, which provides nearly 75% of the center’s medicine supply. These donations are considered the center’s driving force. Significant donations like the recent supply from CMMB have enabled the center to use its resources to renovate and upgrade the facility to provide even better services for their patients. They were able to move their center from the ground floor of an old building, where tiny rooms had poor ventilation and served many purposes, to an upper level floor occupying a larger area with a subsequently larger number of patients. There is now a separate room for dentistry and one for gynecology, a waiting area, and a pharmacy with an attached storage room.

Hebron Clinic Doctor Educates Patients

Patients fill the hallway of the center during morning hours but Dr. Rajabi doesn’t complain. He welcomes each patient with a warm smile and reassuring voice. But he does raise concerns about some of patients’ detrimental practices. “I’d say that almost 60% of our patients come here for a check-up as a last resort after taking various types of antibiotics without consulting a doctor,” he explains.

When 30-year-old Suzanne Al-Natsheh steps into his office with her complete blood count (CBC) results, Dr. Rajabi’s suspicions are confirmed: She has a secondary atypical viral infection that has developed into acute sinusitis. The doctor suspects her deteriorating condition is the result of an earlier faulty diagnosis and incorrect treatment.

Hebron Clinic Suzanne holding medicine

Suzanne, a patient at the clinic, receives antibiotics and a health lesson during her visit.

Like many of Dr. Rajabi’s patients, she has been treating herself with different antibiotics for two months without getting rid of her infection. “What patients don’t realize is that by taking antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription, they are wasting time and money,” he says, “And, what’s worse, is they are endangering their health.” He predicts that if Susan takes the antibiotics donated by CMMB she will fully recover within a week.

Dr. Rajabi says he always takes time for some health education at the end of a treatment session to explain just how important it is to get a proper check-up first to get the right medicine. “Taking course after course of antibiotics arbitrarily could make the body less receptive and cause the condition to worsen, especially if it’s the wrong treatment. By getting the right diagnosis from the outset, you can guarantee a safe and speedy recovery.”

Seven years after getting her bachelor’s in primary education, 32-year-old Wijdan Moqdi got her first chance to work at a governmental school. To her dismay, she was appointed as a preschool classroom teacher. Wijdan had no choice but to accept the position in the village of Masha in Salfit, West Bank.

“I convinced myself I only had to get by for a while until I would be reappointed as a primary school teacher where I believed I belonged,” explains Wijdan.

Teacher Training Takes a Surprising Turn

Her attitude changed dramatically a year later when ANERA organized a 30-day in-service teacher training program and a renovation and rehabilitation project as part of its Early Childhood Development (ECD) program. ANERA’s intervention was made possible with a generous donation by Dubai Cares.

ANERA restored the preschool and added a new playground, furniture, child-appropriate games, toys and books. Masha has a special significance as one of the first preschool classrooms in a government school, established through ANERA’s ECD program. ANERA has worked in tandem with the Ministry of Education since 2014 to rehabilitate two government preschools in the southern West Bank and three in the north, all with funding from Dubai Cares.

The program in Salfit provided 23 teachers from three locations in Qalqilia and seven in Salfit with 30 sessions on early childhood development and core curriculum topics. It was the fifth training held since the ECD program was established in 2010 in the West Bank.

early childhood development palestine wijdan playground

Wijdan took ANERA’s preschool teacher training program and realized that children need vibrant, stimulating activities to learn.

Wijdan recalls the first time she met Sulaima Abu El Haj, ECD coordinator and trainer: “I burst into tears. That’s how frustrated I was. I always felt like I was under constant pressure to develop myself as a preschool teacher but never could figure out how.”

Although Wijdan had a natural love for children, the first year as a kindergarten classroom teacher was very difficult for her, she says, especially because she had mainly relied on her university background to get by.

“Soon after ANERA stepped in, I discovered what I had learned at university was entirely theoretical and almost completely inapplicable to preschool,” explains Wijdan. “I was running the class improperly and that was the biggest hurdle in my path as a preschool teacher. The frustration I felt was predictable,” she sighs, “I lacked the fundamentals!”

A Breakthrough in Interactive Learning

As she continued the training program with ANERA, she started to believe that everything would be okay. However, Wijdan says the real breakthrough came when she changed her perception of what learning is all about.

early childhood development palestine two girls paint

Preschoolers get creative with finger paints.

“I couldn’t imagine a classroom without desks facing a big blackboard. These were fundamental elements of a classroom to me from preschool all the way to university,” she explains. “The blackboard was always there. It had to be!”

Now, she realizes the blackboard can be replaced by games and activities. “When a fun game can teach kids letters, words and spelling, why would I need a blackboard?”

Wijdan was skeptical when Sulaima trained the group of teachers on modern teaching methods and techniques and classroom arrangement. But, when Wijdan put it all into practice, she was convinced it was the best approach.

“We don’t have lessons, but rather a daily program. We sit together on the floor every morning to chat and plan our day. We have various components to our activities like nature, art, games, blocks, drama and storytelling. At the end of each day we have a wrap-up session where the children recall the day’s events and get to express themselves,” says Wijdan with a note of pride in her voice.

Like a large majority of teachers and parents, she used to believe that preschool revolved around reading and writing, and a lot of homework. Today, an enlightened Wijdan understands how the process of learning is always ongoing and takes time.

“With all honesty, I’ve recently discovered that our traditional way of teaching in Palestine is quite rigid and even crippling. Teachers cramp the children’s personalities and imagination, instead of empowering their creativity.”

early childhood development palestine girl with blue paint

Nadira gets her hands dirty playing with finger paints during a fun art lesson.

“It’s all about giving them a right start in life and giving them the emotional and physical space for their personalities to develop. It’s been over two years, and now I dread the possibility of working in more advanced grades. The preschool has become my home.”

One of Wijdan’s early memories was struggling to learn a sentence by heart. She recalls her preschool as being no different than primary or elementary school. They were both a “dreary” classroom with no games or toys.

“When I look at the children I teach in this very rich and stimulating environment, I see a promising future ahead of them,” contemplates Wijdan.I truly believe they will grow up to become better adults. I wish I could go back in time and experience preschool in the same way.”

View the slideshow to see more photos of Wijdan’s preschool class:

early childhood development palestine wijdan hoola hoop
early childhood development palestine girl red paint
early childhood development palestine girl two blue hands
early childhood development palestine wijdan holding painting
early childhood education palestine spelling game
early childhood development class playing outside
early childhood development palestine boy jumping
early childhood development palestine wijdan with students

When Wijdan changed her perception of what learning was about, she was able to foster her students' creativity and growth.

Farah plays with the red finger paint her teacher helped the class make using flour, water and food coloring.

Nadira shows off her very blue hands — finger painting is one of her favorite activities.

Wijdan proudly holds up Dimah's finished masterpiece.

Children learn Arabic words and their spellings with fun, colorful games.

Wijdan's class has fun outside playing with hula hoops.

Nabil and his classmates take turns jumping into hoops during an outdoor play time.

Wijdan poses with her class outside on the playground after playing games with hula hoops.

early childhood development palestine wijdan hoola hoop thumbnail
early childhood development palestine girl red paint thumbnail
early childhood development palestine girl two blue hands thumbnail
early childhood development palestine wijdan holding painting thumbnail
early childhood education palestine spelling game thumbnail
early childhood development class playing outside thumbnail
early childhood development palestine boy jumping thumbnail
early childhood development palestine wijdan with students thumbnail