At Star Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Ramallah, Christmas has been celebrated for many years with a mixture of European and Palestinian culture. In the first week of December, one can already smell the beautiful scent of the natural Christmas tree, standing in the dining room, decorated in red and gold, with both handmade and bought decorations. The tree is actually a group of small branches cut out of a bigger tree from within Star Mountain’s forest, pulled together in a very nice natural manner, since we cannot afford to cut off a whole tree.
Unfortunately, in Palestine trees are becoming rare. With the high prices of petrol, people tend to cut trees to secure heat in winter. Also, being enclosed in a very narrow area called the West Bank and Gaza, not much land is left for the Palestinians as natural reserves. Constructional expansion of homes, villages and cities, are natural consequences of demographic growth, yet unfortunately gradually eating up open areas.
This makes Star Mountain a unique place, where hundreds of pine, cypress and olive trees are standing over the hilltop creating a special atmosphere and allowing for the local Palestinian natural wilderness to grow in between with oak trees, shrubs and different types of flowers, including lilies, anemones, daffodils, among many others.
In 2011, over the four weeks prior to Christmas, Advent has been celebrated together with staff members and students with intellectual disability. Every Monday morning one part of the Christmas story has been read aloud accompanied with pictures, Christmas songs and sweets.
For our intellectually disabled students, this atmosphere is very special due to coming from mainly a Muslim culture. Christians and Muslims have been always living side by side in Palestine with very good relations, understanding each other’s customs and holding mutual respect to one another. The students come from nearby villages and one refugee camp in the Birzeit/Ramallah area. Their ages range from 3 months to 45 years old distributed among five programs: the integrative kindergarten, the school education program, the autism program, the vocational training program, the community work program. Support services include psycho-social support, art education, physiotherapy, sports and music education.
For years, the Center strived to add speech therapy to its specialized services. Yet, due to lack of funds, this was never possible. Some staff members compensated the lack of a speech therapist by taking external courses on the topic, and practicing some vocal exercises with the students. However, this was done on a personal initiative without a systematic or specialized approach.
A gift to Star Mountain
Star Mountain’s present for 2011 was the new partnership with the Annie B. Mission, which committed itself to securing the salary of a speech therapist for four coming years. The search for a professional speech therapist has been ongoing since last September, undergoing a rather difficult process of allocating specialists, interviewing them, building high expectations towards some of them, while disregarding others who seemed uninterested, unable to accept the work with intellectually disabled children or who were not qualified to work in this field.
After almost agreeing with one of the best applicants, she apologized last moment. Her previous employer was unwilling to lose her and gave her the best option, namely to make her a permanent fixed worker immediately, as opposed to being an employee on a time-bound project. This was her dream: job security for long years to come.
We on the contrary were not able to offer her a permanent employment contract, having promised funds for four years only. We also follow the Palestinian law, which gives a new employee in the first two years a time-bound contract, then after that the contract becomes automatically fixed.
All in all, we interviewed more than eight people, who were also not easy to find. The West Bank had until now only one college that offers speech therapy as a diploma for two years. Only in September 2011, Birzeit University started a BA degree in speech therapy. Therefore the field is very rare and the demand on the graduates is high.
However, we strongly believe that a good speech therapist will ultimately be found. We are continuing the head hunt aiming at a positive outcome.
Once found, the speech therapist will focus her/his work on the younger children in the integrative kindergarten and the school education program. It is scientifically proven that therapy provided before age 5 is crucial for the intellectually disabled, since this is the time when they can benefit most and when their lives are practically shaped, with the acquired skills.
The room for the speech therapist is being prepared right now. It needs painting, furniture, a computer for therapy purposes and curtains. This room will not only be used for individual, one-to-one work with the students, but also with parents of students, whom the speech therapist will include early on in the therapy process, to assure a partnership between family and the Center. Star Mountain’s outdoor facilities under the trees can also be a good setting for therapy sessions, depending on the disability level of the child and his/her acceptance.
The endeavor of hiring a speech therapist would have not been possible without the belief, great efforts, trust and dedication of members of the Annie B. Mission. On behalf of all Star Mountain parents and staff, I want to convey my deepest gratefulness for this new partnership. It is an honor for all of us to work with the Annie B. Mission and the Board of World Mission, North America.
With the dim political horizon, in which Israeli Occupation continues and in which the internal Palestinian dialogue is failing to take concrete reconciliation steps on the ground, one can only focus on the direct family and work realms. Working with intellectually disabled children and adults gives us all hope.
Even if political change is slow or non-existent, positive change can be seen among the students despite the hard working conditions and severity of the disabilities. It is amazing to see how Ali is now walking on his own, when he was not able to do so before. It is wonderful to notice Lama’s reaction to sounds, when she was unable to make any physical responses before. How inspiring it is to see Halimeh able to write a few letters and recognize her written name.
Those are only few examples, but each and every student has a story. Our wish for 2012, is to start hearing children verbalizing basic sounds and words to express basic needs. ν
Ghada Naser is Director of the Star Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Ramallah, West Bank. All photos by Bill Ray, of Clemmons, N.C.