Becoming independent

Countless school partnerships exist around the globe, but probably none of them is like this one: For ten years now, handicapped children from Germany and Tunisia have been showing each other their home countries. The El May school in Djerba and the Bonn-based Christophorusschule are proud of their achievements, says Rabiaa Ouerimi, the vice president of UTAIM, a Tunisian organisation for the handicapped. ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL supports this exchange programm.

Interview with Rabiaa Ouerimi

You have been involved in this school partnership since its beginning in 2002. What is so special about it?
It is an international and intercultural exchange between disabled pupils. The German kids are mostly physically disabled, while our school in Djerba is primarily designed for mentally disabled persons, although some of them have physical handicaps too.

The partnership started when a class from Bonn travelled to Djerba. This sounds quite exciting, considering they all are handicapped.
Yes, but it’s true: the German pupils from Christophorusschule chose Djerba for their graduation trip. The teachers agreed. As the pupils were interested in Djerba’s disabled youth, they visited El May school. That was back in 2002. Since then, a very close partnership has grown. We have organised several exchanges between teachers and student groups, we’ve been to Tunis together and to Berlin.

How did the Tunisian parents react when you told them that you were planning to take their children to Germany?
They were scared. Most of the families are poor, and no family member has ever been abroad. They also wondered why their disabled child should be the first in the family to make such a journey. But now, after the trip, they’ve seen the effect it had on their children and they appreciate it.

So the pupils learned a lot?
They learned more than what we could have taught them at school in one year. Most important, they became more independent. They had to brush their teeth and go to bed by themselves, and they had to get dressed by themselves in the mornings. Timeliness was a major challenge too. It is very hard to teach children these practical things at school – but after one week in Germany, they will certainly never forget about them again. Moreover, they learned to communicate with people from another culture.

But could they communicate at all? They do not speak their partners’ language, do they?
Their way of thinking is less sophisticated and complex than of most grown up people, so they get along with gestures quite well. Furthermore, we designed a language book for them. It shows pictures of the most important things they might want to talk about. Below the pictures the German and Tunisian words were written, in phonetic spelling.

During the exchanges, the kids attend classes together. What kind of lessons makes sense for such a group with a diversity of disabilities?
Music class, painting, and artistic exercises – these things work out well. For instance, the Germans showed us a very popular workshop they call “Circus Halli Galli”. Although our Tunisian students were sceptical in the beginning – circus really isn’t part of our culture – they now love it. In the breaks, you will always see some children juggling balls or riding one-wheel bikes. On the other hand, the Germans loved our pottery classes.

Do the teachers also benefit from the partnership?
Yes, of course. We share experience. The Germans know how to deal with autism very well, for instance. That is a topic we don’t have that much experience with so far. Sharing experience is most useful, so we plan to initiate an exchange project for teachers next year. Furthermore, teachers from Christophorusschule attend our pedagogics congress every year, when lecturers from all over the world gather in Djerba and discuss how to teach disabled students. The congress typically convenes some 200 people from Arab countries as well as Europe and the USA.

What are the main differences between both schools?
When we visited the German school for the first time, we thought that everything was different: the buildings, the infrastructure, the equipment. And indeed, our education systems are quite different. For instance, we cannot teach our pupils academic knowledge as they do in the German school, because our students are all mentally retarded. Our school, moreover, relies mainly on private donations, as do all homes for the disabled in our country. The German school, by contrast, is publicly funded. Nevertheless, the fundamental mission is the same: We do our best in support of disabled youngsters.

Given that you can’t give academic lessons – what is the teachers’ mission at El May school?
We try to teach the students to be autonomous, to live on their own, to integrate in society and in the labour market. They get lessons in weaving, carpentry and pottery. We sell their products to make some money. The youngest are five years old and they stay in school until they find a job. Five of our former students have permanent jobs now, 20 are currently doing a kind of apprenticeship.

What are the main challenges you face?
We’ve been struggling with the mentality of the Tunisian families. Most parents of disabled children are poor and many are illiterate, and since they tend to marry within their extended families, they are likely to have several handicapped children. But they don’t go to the doctor’s to analyse the reasons. As these children are a heavy burden, their parents often neglect them. But the school relies on the support of the parents. I’ll give you an example: We show every student how to go to the market, to buy food and count their money. But if the parents don’t support these efforts by making use of their kid’s new competence, the competence will eventually be lost again. Fortunately, many families have become more educated in recent years and are taking better care of their children.

Politically, Tunisia’s revolution changed everything last year. Does that affect your work?
The current situation is tough for everyone, including ourselves. There are so many issues the government must tackle, it hardly finds time to dedicate to the disabled. Moreover, there was huge political scandal because the biggest Tunisian organisation for the handicapped was run by the former president’s wife for years. After the revolution, it became known that she had siphoned off funds large scale. Accordingly, many people lost respect for the organisations that promote handicapped people. Donations have dwindled, even though we really aren’t to blame.

Do you discuss political issues with your German counterparts?
Yes, we do. When we were in Berlin, for instance, we watched a film about the fall of the German wall and we discovered how similar our revolutions were. The Tunisian revolution hardly caused any bloodshed, compared with other Arab nations. We realised that what had happened in East Germany is now happening here – and we hope to find the same prosperous path.

Do you have any future plans with your German partners?
We are currently working on a project to tackle one of Djerba’s major problems, environmental pollution. We are collecting garbage and finding out about how to recycle it. Our vision is to start a recycling plant in Djerba and let disabled people run it. We hope to rely on the expertise of the Germans, who have a thorough understanding of related matters.

Taking stock of your experience, which country is better for a dis­abled child to live in – Germany or Tunisia?
You are asking the wrong question. The truth is that no child with a disability wants to be taken away from its roots. For all of them, their home country is the best place, so we have to do our best to offer them a good life there.

Eva-Maria Verfürth conducted the interview.

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