When the taxi stops in front of a large institutional looking building, the Palestine Avenir (is that Avenue lost in translation or what?) for Childhood Foundation, Cerebral Palsy Center, I should have suspected this would be an extraordinary experience from the start. Outside in the sandy park fronting the building, three children in wheelchairs are strapped into a playground spinner/merry-go-round/round-about thing (you know the one that abled children run around and then leap onto for a ride, hopefully not splitting open their chins like my daughter at that age). These children are screaming and laughing like ordinary children and that is indeed just the point. Besides this there is a brightly colored swing/contraption modified to hold a wheelchair with a heavy rope suspended from above such that the differently abled child can thrill to the joy of rocking up and down with the wind in her hair.
We are greeted by Ahmed Alkashi, the Director, who our delegation organizer Gerry refers to as an angel. He is the kind of man with a twinkle in his eye, radiating a combo of competence, love and energy, or in my world, a real mensch. The USAID funded school is focused on getting ready for Mother’s Day which they have delayed for several days to coincide with our visit! No problem! This is Gaza after all and not much runs on time.
Ahmed explains that the children are separated by IQ, 70-80, 80-95, etc., and if less than 70 they are given extra support so that they can qualify for the school. Ultimately some of them are able to be mainstreamed into the Ministry of Education schools. The facility is clean and thoughtfully wheelchair accessible, two elevators transport students up and down. We pass the outreach and portage program (ie they get the kids to and fro), and a number of small classes that have two to three dedicated and specially trained teachers. The students have a variety of levels of disability and mobility issues. One class is making gifts for their mothers, they are wearing stars with the words, “My mother is my source of happiness.” There are a total of 150 students and 43 teachers. It turns out that in Palestine, there is no Father’s Day. Every day is Father’s Day I am told, and I am not sure if that is primarily honorific or just plain patriarchal.
We pass a staff meeting where parents are working to integrate their child into regular school and establish a good follow up plan. We poke our heads into an office with a social worker, a dabke class, speech therapy, a library, a gym with weight training to build muscle strength, physical and occupational therapy, with students from Al Azhar and Islamic University. The facility appears very well run and there is an unusual warmth, respect, and kindness that is palpable in the relationships we observe.
But the big surprise has yet to start. We are ushered into a large hall with several hundred students, mothers, a few fathers, teachers, and several DJs. Loud rhythmic Arabic music is booming as we are seated in a separate long table as the honored guests. The mistress of ceremonies speaks passionately about Mothers with poetry and Quranic verses. “Heaven is under the feet of the mother.” “The mother is not small, she is the whole world.” A child in a wheelchair recites a Quranic verse about mothers and another relates a Hadith from the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) about how the most important person is your mother, the second most important.. your mother, the third…your mother, and the fourth..(finally)… your father.
“Mother always looks after the children, we should be in gratitude.” The flowery tributes continue as mothers beam in the audience, the music blasts on, the director gives a speech, (“There is no handicap, there is only a society that is handicapping them.”) An entertainer plays goofy games (this is reminding me of an over the top Bar Mitzvah), the children get up and do synchronized dances and singing which reveal an incredible amount of practice, coordination, and enthusiasm. People are really having fun and soon I am in a circle dance, pushing a young boy in a wheelchair with a large pink bunny wiggling ahead of us. Oh and I forgot to mention the two clowns, one sporting a truly bizarre orange Mohawk spiked hairdo. I am beginning to feel that we can really learn a lot from this school and the loving acceptance of all the differently abled children. This is also a dramatic contrast from ten years ago when I first learned that children with war related disabilities were celebrated, but congenital problems were considered shameful and those children were often hidden from society. The educational system here has certainly made an enormous amount of progress in this regard. I think of all the ridiculous racist comments I have heard about how Palestinians don’t love their children or don’t treat their women respectfully. A day in this school for children with cerebral palsy should put the final kabash on that ugly bit of propaganda.
The celebration ends with an impassioned, tearful speech by the woman MC’ing, condemning Israeli attacks and reading a poem to all the mothers who lost their children in the latest war. The music turns mournful and many eyes are starting to tear up. At some point as a profound mix of rage and sadness fills the room, she calls up a young woman, early teens, who also lost her own mother in the war. At this point the child is sobbing as well as many in the audience. I do not know if this is a form of community tribute and support or an incredibly re-traumatizing moment. Ultimately she is embraced, we hear “God will provide,” and the anguish that underlies this remarkable tribute to love and resilience, embraces the room. I learn later that the school has stepped in to support this young woman along with her immediate and extended family. Mother’s Day, once an international feminist call for peace, celebrated here in a time of war after war.