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A beautiful place

Sharon Lock | Tales to Tell

8 February 2009

9 year old K is on the right with the blue backpack on her chair

9 year old K is on the right with the blue backpack on her chair

Before the strikes, the group 14 Friends of Palestine asked E and me to make contact with a little girl they sponsor via Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children. It’s taken a while for us to catch our breath and follow this up, but we got there today. We followed our usual pattern; meeting at Al Shifa hospital, grabbing a falafal sandwich, then striding off down the dusty streets ignoring all the beeping taxis that want to drive us (shared taxis are as close as Gaza gets to public transport.)

20 minutes later, I am startled by the wholeness of the Atfaluna building. Several of the buildings nearby are in small concrete pieces, but Atfaluna has grass, Atfaluna has windows. I doubt Israel avoided Atfaluna deliberately, since they bombed schools and hospitals, so Atfaluna also has good luck. Inside, we meet S, our initial contact, who has arranged for us for K’s social worker M to take us to visit her family. They live in Shayjaiee, in four rooms – K’s parents, and their 7 girls (born in a row), followed by 4 boys, the last one a smiley 5 months.

K’s mum S is a friendly woman, who tries mostly in vain to coax her girls, just home from school, to appear for us in anything other than shyly giggling glimpses, though we do eventually manage a photo with some of them. She manages to introduce us to two of the little boys with the lure of the arabic sweets we’d brought. We ask her how the Israeli strikes had affected them; she says they stayed in their home for the first ten days but the rocket attacks then became too close and frightening and they moved in with their downstairs neighbours, that being the only place they had to go.

The bread shortage has hit them hard, she says, describing bargaining for a bag of flour and being 20 shekels (about £3) short. A wave of guilt hits me; if only we had got to see them before the attacks, they would have had the equivalent of K’s dad’s salary for a month (he’s a cleaner) that we are bringing them today from 14 Friends of Palestine. S, apparently not giving this a moment’s thought herself, cheerfully says they did manage to get the flour after all in the end, and I remind myself the bread shortage continues, and the money is just as welcome now.

K’s home is very simple, they don’t have much, and when we ask S what the donation might go on, it’s clear they will carefully keep themselves in the basics for the children to be well and comfortable: mattresses, floor mats, food, clothes, gas maybe. J from 14 Friends of Palestine said we could use our discretion as to whether to buy the family things or hand over the donation itself, and it’s clear to us that the family will know better what they need than we will and use it wisely. Also at J’s suggestion, we’ve kept a little money back to buy some unnecessary things for the children that we think K’s parents might feel they shouldn’t buy with it themselves, so we’ll be back another day with the rest of the donation and maybe things like coloured pens, drawing books… we’ll see what’s available that looks like it will last a series of small hands.

E heads off to see if 18 year old Abd at Al Wafa is managing to imagine some sort of life for himself in a wheelchair yet. Back at Atfaluna, I am taken in to meet K, in amongst a class full of beaming kids. She leaps from her chair, glowing at finding herself the centre of attention. M signs to her that we come from Jane and 14 friends, and have met her family. She introduces herself to me with her sign name, a curving stroke of her finger from her forehead to her cheek, imitating the sweep of her dark curly hair. I am pleased to be able to return the sign name I was given once, the placing of an imaginary hat on my head (I like hats.) I meet also her sister S, also deaf, a calm 14 year old, smiling in her own more restrained class.

Then I am taken down to the kindergarten class, in a series of green carpeted rooms that imitate a lush outdoors that Gaza city children don’t see, except here where there are also gardens outside. They also bubble over with enthusiasm for a visitor, and I learn the Palestine sign for salaam aleikum. Surrounded by energetic and joyful small people, I realise what incredibly expressive faces and bodies deaf children can develop, with space and permission to move, from supportive teachers, many of whom are deaf themselves. Next I go to see some of the traditional craftwork the adults who work here produce.

This place is amazing. For the first time ever, I am seeing what Palestinians look like when they are surrounded by beauty: by art, by books and resources, by unbroken, unbombed, undamaged, working things. It makes me want to cry. (Currently a lot of random stuff makes me want to cry; I didn’t cry for any of those broken, bombed, damaged children in my ambulance and I guess that sadness is waiting somewhere deep.)

That makes me think of the modern sweeping design of the Jabalia Red Crescent building. I saw the Jabalia building before Israel fired shells at it, when it was new and whole like Atfaluna. It still works, only one room is burnt out. But now it looks like everything else in this place. Big shell holes, smaller bullet holes. Blackened patches.

300 children are studying at Atfaluna. 150 are on the waiting list. While it continues to stay in one piece, they will grow up with a vision that hearing Gaza children will simply have to imagine; what the world looks like when it isn’t all dust and crumbled concrete.