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Rehabilitation centre

Tough times for the disabled

by Sumaya Farhat-Naser
Star Mountain in Ramallah, Palestine, is a rehabilitation centre for physically and mentally disabled children and youth. The objective is to integrate the disabled into everyday life and social activities. Among other things, the specialised school offers art and music therapy. Key components of rehabilitation work include awareness raising and fighting prejudice. Military occupation, however, makes everything more difficult. [ Sumaya Farhat-Naser ]

When a woman in Palestine gives birth to a disabled child, relatives often regard the event as a disgrace or punishment by God. Some even believe that the devil had a hand in it, or that magic and evil spirits are at work. Affected families therefore tend to hide their disabled children, or refuse to admit that a child has a disability. Many fear that no one will marry the siblings.

Knowledge, a humane attitude and personal sensitivity are needed to convince the families concerned to accept and look after their disabled children. Indeed, there is a religious duty to accept them, care for them and help them. Islam explicitly demands sympathy for disabled persons.

After more than 40 years of military occupation, life is far from being normal in Palestine. Both young and old generally can only take care of the most immediate necessities. There is little space for cultural activities, rest, pleasure, development or simply a normal life. Many people in the country – children and adults alike – are traumatised and isolate themselves from others. Many feel persecuted and threatened, and would like to flee.

People in Palestine live on constant alert, expecting the worst and hoping for the situation to ease. They want to start afresh and wish they had more breathing space. The situation is so tense it drains many people of the energy to work and be creative.

Much has deteriorated in terms of training and education too. Psychological stress is evident throughout society. Of course, the overall bleak situation is especially hard on disabled people. More than ever, they lack the attention they need and are entitled to.

The Star Mountain centre tries to improve matters. Every day, more than 50 disabled children and youngsters from the surrounding villages attend the specialised school, taking part in rehabilitation activities and vocational training. They learn, play, train, receive physiotherapy, paint and sing. The hot midday meal does not only guarantee food security, it is just as much a shared ritual that teaches the disabled a sense of community – and how to eat at the table with their family at home.

Road blocks

In order to address the needs of the disabled, the centre needs bright staff with special educational skills as well as other responsible persons. Sadly, there is a serious lack of adequate personnel – not least, because more than 500 road blocks and the famous wall separate cities and towns in the occupied territories, robbing Palestinians of their human right to move around and commute freely. A trip that would normally take ten minutes lasts an hour, and you’ll need three hours for a journey that would normally take only one.

The children who attend the Star Mountain centre come from five villages. 860 disabled people were counted in these settlements and four small towns. In fact, there are probably at least twice as many disabled persons. One reason for such high numbers is probably that relatives tend to marry among one another.

Every day, one worries whether the children and youth will be allowed to pass the Atara checkpoint. Delays of one to two hours are always factored into any journey time. That also means that Star Mountain’s 38 employees never know exactly when they will get home. Their families live in constant uncertainty too. The disabled often have to wait a long time in the bus at the roadblock. They become anxious and agitated, so an extra escort is needed to soothe them.

This is a reason for families to worry quite a bit. Some doubt whether they should really keep on sending their disabled children to Star Mountain. They are afraid that their offspring may not be able to react appropriately and escape should violence break out. To reassure the families and keep them briefed on the needs of their disabled members, personal visits at their homes are required.

Life is never simple – but under military occupation everything becomes even more arduous. Productivity falls, and much time is lost. Happiness and energy decrease. One’s nerves and soul suffer in particular because you never know for sure what will happen and whether you will get where you plan to go to. For each and every activity, one needs a plan B. At the end of the day, it is already quite an achievement to have made half of one’s plans come true. Normally, the ratio is lower. It is therefore very important to coach and encourage the staff – to boost their spirits and ensure they do not lose motivation.

The Star Mountain centre focuses on integrating the disabled into their home towns to the extent possible. With the help of local people, for instance, “resource rooms” have been set in schools, nursery schools, youth clubs and at women’s organisations in centrally located villages. These rooms serve as meeting points. Village committees have been established. They get support and training from Star Mountain staff, the Medical Relief Organisation and staff in the villages.

Rehabilitation activities are intended to help to change the attitude towards disabilities, aiming to give the people affected a better image. It is necessary to break down prejudices and improve the standard of living by helping people with disabilities to become more independent. This can be done through early diagnosis and early intervention, by mobilising the village community and by strengthening capacities by training employees and family members. It helps to have village committees that get involved and share the work for the disabled at the grassroots level.