ANERA began its long partnership with Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children in Gaza in 1993 through scholarship and training programs, which provided a whole range of vital services for deaf children and adults - from classroom to office.
Twenty years later, the ANERA-Atfaluna partnership is thriving.
ANERA recently constructed an additional floor for Atfaluna’s building and added a science lab. The audiology and speech therapy clinics were renovated and expanded. Two additional rooms for audiology tests and speech therapy were added to the audiology center, which now meets international standards.
Through the years, ANERA has organized training programs for Atfaluna staff, renovated and improved its facilities and generally supported Atfaluna’s work to prepare so many talented youngsters and adults for life in the hearing world. ANERA's work was made possible through private donations and USAID grants.
Training Teachers for the Deaf
Samira El-Khodari has been employed as a special teacher for deaf children at Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children for the past 21 years. Based on a training Samira took with ANERA in 1993, she was able pursue her career. “It was the first training of its kind ever in Gaza. It qualified me to teach deaf students,” she explained. “For me it was a wonderful leap forward in our teaching methods, using visuals, reading lips and acting out our conversations.
ANERA provided 30 teachers some 700 hours of training that focused on psychology, audiology, usage of special equipment and factors behind the deafness. Samira remembers the early days: “I started teaching letters, then a few words and and then sentences and now students even excel in Arabic grammar.”
Samira laughs when she remembers the early days before all the technology was available. “My first experience was with an 11-year-old girl who wasn’t able to do simple calculations and I had to work hard to develop her skills,” Samira teaches 7th and 9th grade at Atfaluna. “Now, I use a lot of other visual assets to make my job and the whole learning process easier.”
Samira and her colleagues use a special curriculum designed for deaf children. In a sign of success and commitment to Atfaluna’s program, she says many graduates come to class to work as teacher assistants or in the vocational training program. “They teach math and Arabic language for younger classes,” she adds.
“ANERA’s training in the 90s brought me along this road to my passion. It takes time to build bonds between the teacher and the students,” said Samira. “I am proud that the first school for deaf children in Gaza has become an example for other schools.” Now Samira dreams of providing professional diplomas in vocational training like art, computers or weaving will create more job opportunities for deaf children.
Vocational Training to Produce Sought-After Crafts
24-year-old Ahmad Abu El-Qumasaan graduated from Atfaluna School six years ago but he has never really left. Today he can be found in the vocational training department where he works, creating the ceramic and wooden products that are sold in the school’s store.
Teachers say Ahmad’s talent appeared early in his childhood. “I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else and I have managed to succeed in my field,” he says. “I moved into vocational training after I trained for a year in making ceramics -- a field I worked in for six years. I am glad that people buy the things that I and my colleagues produce, like trays and other crafts that reflect Palestinian culture.”
Ahmad loves coloring and creating new designs. “I download books with different trimming styles and samples, bit of course I create something that reflects our culture.” He shows a colorful tray he has produced for Atfaluna's store. “I try to show my creativity through my own collection.” Ahmad is the only deaf child in his family and says he always feels he has to work hard to prove himself in the hearing world.
Atfaluna's store features hand-crafted products from trays and dinnerware to needlepoint scarves and purses. Despite the closure, the shop continues to expand its market beyond Gaza through its online presence.
Serving Gaza With Signs and Smiles
Atfaluna recently opened a popular restaurant staffed mostly by deaf graduates of Atfaluna. While customers chat and scan the menu, waiters wait nearby to take their orders. They read lips, communicate in sign language and bring the orders back to the kitchen where the tasty meals are all cooked by deaf chefs.
Waiter Raed El-Turk joined Atfaluna when he was a preschooler and studied there through the 9th grade. After he finished high school, Raed worried about finding a job. He was sure of one thing: he did not want to stay home and do nothing. So, when Atfaluna offered an eight-month culinary and hospitality training program, he jumped at the opportunity.
“It gave me a sense of security regarding my future and self-reliance because I know how limited job opportunities are in Gaza,” Raed explains.
He admits everyone was nervous when the restaurant opened. “We were worried about how we would be able to deal with our customers. But we actually succeeded in spreading the culture of sign language and our customers are signing their choices from the menu!”
"When I took my first order, my whole body was shaking. It is a restaurant and there is no space for mistakes. Now sometimes I play or act out the order to make sure that I got it right and I can see that people are surprised that we understand what they want.” Raed says the customers are helpful and open and curious about the school.
The restaurant’s decoration includes a wall of sign language to underscore Atfaluna’s mission. Raed says diners often go up to the display and ask about the letters, and we spell out some words for them. And, when they leave, they say their names in sign language.”
Raed smiles with pride when talking about his job. “It is not all about the money. I want to be a role model for other deaf people and tell the world that we can do a lot.”
Belaal Manaaema also took the training course at Atfaluna and now waits on customers in the new restaurant. The 24-year-old dreams of a degree in computer science, but for now he is determined to make the restaurant where he works the talk of Gaza. “Deaf people are able to build the society and I always am determined to prove that our restaurant is distinguished.”