The construction of a new high school, a stone’s throw away from the separation fence along the Green Line, is a dream come true for Moujahed Abu al-Tin. The 16-year-old who can't hear or speak and hails from the village of Kafr Qaddum in the West Bank had long given up hope of continuing his education beyond elementary school.
There are no high schools for the hearing-impaired in the West Bank, so most students turn to vocational training instead.
“Ever since the age of 11, I have tried learning carpentry because I knew that academic learning for the deaf in my country stops in ninth grade,” Tin told Al-Monitor through a sign language interpreter. “With the construction of this new high school, I hope to go to college and become a civil engineer.”
The school, called the Big Heart School, is the initiative of the Al Amal Association for the Deaf, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) founded in 1994 in the town of Qalqilya by a group of deaf residents. The association currently runs a primary school — Al Amal School for the Deaf — that provides education for 65 students until ninth grade. The association also provides vocational courses for the hearing-impaired, such as carpentry, metalworking, sewing and computer repairs.
The construction of a high school has been on the agenda of the association since 2014, when it launched a donation campaign. Finally, the $2.5-million project obtained the support of the Qalqilya municipality, as well as two donors — the Emirati Big Heart Foundation, which runs a kindergarten for the deaf in Sharjah, and the Swiss foundation Taawon.
Students ages 6 to 18 can enroll in the school for elementary and high school education. In addition, the school will also provide classes for adults who want to take the high school graduation exam. The school capacity is 300 students.
The director general of Al Amal Association for the Deaf, Waleed Nazzal, told Al-Monitor, “The construction of the school started last June, and the work is expected to be completed in April 2019. The aim is to improve the educational level for the deaf and open for them the doors of a university education.”
According to data obtained in 2011 by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, deaf people make up 1.3% of the total population in the Palestinian territories.
Nazzal said that more than 90% of deaf people are illiterate because there are no public schools for the hearing-impaired in the West Bank, even though there are 11 private primary schools that provide education for a total of 500 students under the age of 16. All of these schools are run by NGOs and do not offer education beyond ninth grade.
Consequently, deaf students who want to continue their education have no choice but to enter a regular high school, where they are often unsuccessful. “Integrating deaf students in public schools only aims at keeping them — not teaching them. No special tools are available to help the hearing-impaired students and facilitate teachers’ explanations. This results in a weak performance by those students who ultimately fail tests and are not able to pass,” Nazzal said. “So most of them simply drop out of school after primary education.”
He added, “Then boys learn carpentry, blacksmithing or sewing, while deaf girls simply stay at home. But with the founding of the Big Heart School, deaf students can continue their high school education and go on to university. They can [have the profession of their dreams] or stay in academia."
Mayor of Qalqilya Hashim al-Masri told Al-Monitor, “The school has two buildings. The first is a school with five floors and 18 classrooms that includes a computer lab, library, and a speech therapy and hearing test area. The second building is a dormitory that could house the students who live outside of Qalqilya. It includes a kitchen and food court.”
Nazzal noted that the new school, located on a plot of 3,500 square meters (almost 1 acre), will have 40 employees, some of whom are specialized teachers, translators, sign language interpreters, social workers and administrators. But, he added, “one high school is not enough to meet the needs of deaf students for secondary education in the Palestinian territories. More schools are needed.”
Naila Fahmawi, the director of the Qalqilya District Directorate of Education, told Al-Monitor, “The Big Heart School will [be a pioneer for the construction of] other high schools for the deaf in the West Bank. The ministry is keen on integrating all factions of society — especially individuals with special needs — into the educational sector by offering them the education they deserve.”
She added that the priority in the coming years is to increase the number of specialized schools as well as providing services to facilitate students' attendance in all levels of education.
With the assistance of a sign language interpreter, Jamal Kheir el-Din, 14, from Nablus told Al-Monitor, “This school [Big Heart School] is my only window to reach college. Now we can become doctors, engineers and teachers. This is something we were deprived of for decades.”
Two years ago, the Islamic University of Gaza launched two programs for the hearing-impaired.
In the Gaza Strip, there is one high school for the deaf. El Rafii School for the Deaf is located in the western part of Gaza City and has separate branches for girls and boys. The total number of students at the school is 70, and they are enrolled in grades 10 through 12.
The school’s principal, Jihad Hassan, told Al-Monitor, “El Rafii School was founded in 2011 and has been offering since then specialized services to the deaf in the Gaza Strip with the support of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education.”
She clarified that the curriculum that the deaf students receive is the same as the Palestinian national curriculum, which includes Arabic literature, English literature, math, sciences, Islamic religion, arts and sports.
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