The Sheikha Fatima Rehabilitation Centre in Palestine shows the value of supporting disabled people in the troubled West Bank.
By Tom Jamison
Mercifully in the almost 70 years since the Second World War ended, Britain has enjoyed peace, at least on the home front. Of course, the global picture is different with certain regions having become notorious, even synonymous with conflict, violence and death.
Israel has featured regularly on news bulletins for many years and for all of the wrong reasons. Imagine living there, under threat from bombs and missiles and then imagine how difficult it would be to live there with a disability. I was invited to travel to Hebron in the West Bank just before Christmas to see for myself how disabled people cope with living in such a tough environment.
Even without the spectre of conflict, Palestine is a difficult place. The terrain is rough and hilly, with buildings planted on shelves on the steep slopes. The countryside seems to be endless valleys of gravel with few signs of meaningful agriculture. The unemployment rate is 40% and although the people clearly have spirit and a passion for their homeland, it’s clear that they are tired of drudgery.
In social climates like these it’s easy to believe that disabled people and their rights and needs become largely forgotten. Indeed, the bustling streets of places like Bethlehem and in the centre of Hebron are narrow, cobbled, difficult places to navigate. The fact that I saw but a handful of disabled people on the streets speaks volumes about the challenges they face. At the time of my visit, they were also dealing with an unprecedented amount of snowfall that had caused severe disruption to geographic communications such as the road network that snakes out to the distant villages and hamlets from the major towns and cities. I was later told that the prevalence of disability in Palestine is just 7% of the population – a figure that immediately seemed incredibly low compared with that of the UK (20%). Clearly, the figures are either based on different criteria than ours or people are hiding the extent of disability in their families, possibly due to stigma.
I was invited to visit the region to look specifically at a project based just outside Hebron. High in the hills is the Sheikha Fatima Rehabilitation Centre, the largest UNDP project (United Nations Development Fund) in the West Bank. Currently, 85 students, 60 of whom are disabled are learning vocational skills based on gaps identified in the Palestinian economy. The idea is that graduates will go out into the community, possibly with the benefit of a small business loan and use their newly developed skills to form a business from which they can live independently. Honestly speaking, if this type of centre existed in Manchester, Glasgow or London, it would be viewed as ambitious, in Hebron, in the West Bank region, it is little less than a blessed miracle.
Choices for Study
The founder of the miracle is Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak of the UAE with assistance from the UNDP and ILO (International Labour Organisation). Generous donations (totalling over one million US dollars) have paid for the land and the construction of a purpose built centre as well as kitting it out with machinery and technology enough to help train (mostly) young people in sewing, carpentry, hair and beauty, computers, cell phone repair and metalwork (specifically manufacturing aluminium window frames).
The centre sits at the very top of a small cluster of houses outside of Hebron. Even without the prevailing snow (which had kept a lot of the students at home) I couldn’t help thinking that the location wasn’t the most accessible, being situated so far out of town. Transport, I learned, is one of the big challenges. Although the centre has an adapted minibus, such things are rare in this part of the world and they could really do with a bigger adapted vehicle to get the students to and from their classes.
As with many of the buildings in Palestine, there’s still some way to go before the centre is finished. It’s clear that building work must be relatively cheap since there are just so many projects on the go, but that supplies or labour are fairly thin on the ground. This is also the case with the centre. Although it’s open, there are still the tell-tale hallmarks of a building in progress: wheelbarrows and details that are only half finished as well as a thin layer of plaster dust over just about everything outside of the workshops. Nevertheless, there’s no need to delay the students’ valuable training.
Curiously, for a purpose-built centre, the workshops are on the first floor, access to which is via long ramps that snake up the side of two walls of an enclosed tennis court-sized atrium; presumably this means that more light gets through the windows in the workshops and classrooms. There’s also something of a reflection of the outside world here; brutally speaking, even in the most forgiving neighbourhood, if a student can’t manage the gentle ramps to the first floor of the centre, they have little realistic chance of getting out and about in a city like Hebron.
Our guide around the centre was Councillor Hana Qaimori, herself a native of Hebron who has formerly worked with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the UN. If she’s looking for a culmination to her 34-year career helping disabled people, this centre is probably it.
She explained that students selected to train at the centre were given a choice of training in one of the six fields but that if they showed no real aptitude, they’d be obliged to try something else. Speaking with the students revealed that this rarely happens but it was an indicator that when the centre talks about “business” – it ‘means business’. This is not an easy-going option. Students are expected to work hard and from my tour it seems as though they do – not least because they seem to really enjoy what they’re doing.
Although the centre is primarily set up for disabled students I learnt that there were some trainees who were able bodied. These are largely young people that would struggle to find the same opportunity to learn vocational skills elsewhere but there is another reason.
The fact is, with any specialist learning provision that eventually students will have to graduate into a world that is not (in large part) specially adapted to individuals’ needs. From this point of view it’s important that disabled people have an understanding of what it’s going to be like out there and so able-bodied students are also inducted. “We are speaking about an inclusive society,” Councillor Qaimaroi reminds me. “I like our people with disabilities to be integrated in the centre with other people. Otherwise it’s a waste of money and we make people with disabilities isolated. We have 20 people without disabilities in the centre in order to show that we are going to have an integration policy not separation”.
The students give what is quite a plain and functional place a bit of character and colour. Their shy smiles peak out from behind machines that they’ll have to get used to in industrial settings once they graduate.
Carpentry was the first workshop we entered. Stacks of beautifully crafted, detailed pieces of doors and furniture took up every space on unused workbenches and between sawing machines, lathes and other mean looking objects. It’s obvious that the boys here have already achieved an incredible level of attainment. Again, if there’s idle chat, it’s laced with ambition since one student, Louis, tells me that he might well go into business with some of the other students he’s training with – something that the centre heartily approves of and encourages. Several heads are better than one.
Getting a Job
Leaving the sawdust behind we met up with a completely different set of students studying hair and beauty. Palestinian society is shy and conservative and the young women in the class seemed to embody those qualities. Even so, Huuda, a young girl of 19 explained that hair and beauty was a growing industry with plenty of demand (and competition). The female students wear headscarves but explained that when in the company of other women beauty and elegance is a constant topic of interest and conversation.
Further on in the computer lab, more serious minds were at work and I did feel somewhat guilty for interrupting. Nevertheless, through Hana’s interpretation I discovered that Anaam a wheelchair user, was learning office skills such as touch-typing as well as developing her ideas about the applications of different software packages. Curiously, it might be slightly more difficult for Anaam to get a job with her computer skills than it will be for Huuda but she was still clearly determined to carry on.
Vocational skills are going to play an important part in whether or not the young people I met at the centre are going to get into employment or not. After we left the centre we took the road back into Hebron to visit a mosque, where biblical prophet, Abraham is laid to rest. After parking up, we started to walk through the old souk. Sadly, where there was once a vibrant and competitive gathering of traders there were now just a few shopkeepers that bother to open. The souk is now overlooked by an Israeli settlement from which rocks and other more unsavoury missiles are regularly hurled. Much of the business has been squeezed dry because of the continual harassment. For young people then, traditions cannot be relied on to give them a future.
Heartening then was a stop off at Ahmed’s phone shop. Ahmed was a student at the centre until a few months ago when he and 34 other students graduated into the world with their newfound skills. Ahmed runs a phone shop, selling and repairing handsets and accessories. He told me that business was good and that he is even considering advancing his qualifications by going to university (although there is an issue with accessibility, since Ahmed is a wheelchair user). Oddly, Ahmed’s small shop is at the top of a steep hill that I struggled to walk up; apparently Ahmed’s brother, along with his other family is determined enough to push him up when needs be.
Integration for disabled people in Palestine can also be tricky and the staff at the centre recognise that the investment would be all but wasted if they don’t manage to take off after graduation. Hana confirms: “Our goal is not just to give them education and let them alone – no, our policy is to continue. Even after they graduate we have a social worker on regular visits and we concentrate on solving any difficulties”.
These are the reasons why the centre is destined to be a success. Although it’s realistically just a starting point, the community is beginning to understand and embrace disabled people more readily. Hana told us earlier that: “Palestinian society has changed. Before, we had mothers hiding their sons because they had a disability but now the mothers come to me and say that “I have a child with a disability, I need this and this and this”. Thank God they have that awareness now and they are starting to gain their rights. We had a Palestinian law issued in 1999 for the rights of people with disabilities”.
As we have witnessed in the UK, change can take time. Everything in Palestine is undergoing gradual change: infrastructure, attitudes and opportunity not-excepted. I came home safe and well and able to relate, with a chuckle, tales of the tense questioning I’d been subjected to in Tel Aviv airport on the way home. Sadly, from my snug armchair a few days later I learnt that a bus bomb had been detonated in Tel Aviv, a reminder of the fragile state of the ongoing peace talks.
Of course, the greatest change to life in Palestine would come about if peace could succeed. Sadly, the political situation just doesn’t look ready, and so for the time being, it’s down to people with pioneering generosity such as Sheikha Fatima and the UN. Of course, there’s also a large element of self determination required of disabled people too. Whilst the students in the centre delicately construct a career for themselves it’s difficult to foresee what their future might be.