Palestinian school for the blind helps children become self-sufficient and productive members of society
“We are here for all the people in the West Bank,” says new school principal Mirna Fliefel, during exclusive interview
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by All Arab News Staff | June 6, 2022
Mirna Fliefel, principal of Al-Shurooq school in Beit Jala (Photo courtesy)
A unique school near Bethlehem in the West Bank is helping young blind people and their families deal with the challenges they face on a daily basis.
Al-Shurooq School For Blind Children in Beit Jala is on a mission to help their students build self-confidence, self-worth and independence, despite their visual impairment. In an exclusive interview with Christian journalist, Paul Calvert, the new school principal – Mirna Fliefel – explained what they do and why.
Al-Shurooq (which means sunrise in Arabic) was founded in 1981 by Helen Shehadeh, an elder in the Church of Scotland at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem. Shehadeh established the school to enable the blind population within the Palestinian territories to become self-sufficient and productive members of society. The school is now affiliated with the National Society for the Visually Handicapped, providing full care and education for blind children ages 3 through 12 years old.
Fliefel believes that blind children have the full right to get educated and integrated into society and to be able to say one day, “We are here. We are members of this society and we are not different. We can do what you all can do.”
The school currently has 26 students from different villages throughout the West Bank, including Hebron, Jericho and Ramallah. And Fliefel hopes that there will soon be many more.
“Mostly these villages are remote villagers who are almost poor families who need help,” she said, adding that the school accommodates all children, whether they are Christian or Muslim and no matter what their stage of blindness may be.
“We don’t differentiate. We serve every blind children, who is in need of our services. So Christian Muslims, we are here for all people in the West Bank,” Fliefel said.
Fliefel believes that all the students should learn Braille whether they are totally or partially blind, because according to their reports, any of the partially blind children may become fully blind in the near or distant future.
Braille is a global, standalone form of written language for blind people, where characters are represented by patterns of raised dots that can be felt with the fingertips, thus producing words.
“Everyone can come here to learn Braille,” Fliefel said. “We give training sessions for parents who have blind children at home – even though their kids are not in our school – or other children who are in other schools and need Braille courses. We do give Braille courses.”
As the new principal, Fliefel says she is also learning Braille for the first time, adding that the students learn in Arabic, English, as well as typing and reading Braille.
Fliefel said one of the big areas of focus for the students is to help them gain confidence and to boost their self-esteem.
“They lack confidence due to their cases…due to the fact that they don’t see. So even though you feel at first, when they walk in, they are afraid – afraid of everything they hear, everything they touch. And it’s something normal for people who don’t see’” she explained.
Al Shurooq school in Beit Jala (Photo courtesy)
So we take these students lacking confidence; we build confidence. We help them gain full confidence by teaching them daily life skills they need by teaching them the skills that allow them to be productive members in the society, in their communities. And working on their personality from all aspects – academically, physically, even – in every aspect they need. So we build a full person who is confident of himself or herself.”
Fliefel explained that confidence is also built within the school community and discussed how important it is for the children to know they are not alone.
“They are here as brothers and sisters. It is very important to let them meet each other, live with each other, deal with each other,” Fliefel said. “So, this is also a way of gaining confidence. You know, ‘I’m not alone’ or ‘I’m not the only one’. They really want to be with each other, they really help each other. This atmosphere among them is very, very, very interesting actually. It’s something from the inside. They give each other from the inside.”
“Every day and every moment, every experience they share, they exchange experience, they share experience. This is something important also for gaining confidence for the students.”
Fliefel also understands that without a school for the blind, children would likely be sitting at home, hidden away from society.
At Al-Shurooq, the staff recognizes that every child has a special talent and they work with the children to embolden them in those areas.
Fliefel said three or four of the enrolled students have a passion to learn a musical instrument, which the school encouraged.
“So, we started with piano lessons. We started with the guitar and the organ for these three or four students. And the drums. With the talent and the passion, you’ll get through and you’ll succeed,” she affirmed. She said some of the students have a passion for drawing and handicrafts and the school is now looking for teachers to help expand education in that area.
Most of all, Fliefel emphasized, “We keep supporting. We keep allowing them time and space, enough space to improve their skills, to produce, to fill the talent they have.”
Fliefel said the students really enjoy being at school and love their teachers, adding that the experience at Al- Shurooq is “not all about education.”
“We implement activities, games, educational aids. We give art, we give music. So, yes, they enjoy coming to the school. And their parents also say that “our kids are always asking, when are we going back to school after each weekend. So, thanks God.”
The school staff stays in close communication with parents and provides them with practical support, recognizing that the home is the most important environment for the child.
“We follow up with them any time. And then they send us videos. We comment, we give feedback on the videos. Also, we gather the parents here almost twice or three times a month. We give them awareness sessions. We talk about their kids – the way they should be living, the way they should behave. We take feedback, we comment, we exchange experience and we are always in touch.”
Al-Shurooq School For Blind Children is a charity organization which relies on donations and volunteers, as well as support from churches, such as St. Andrew’s Church and the Church of Scotland. Fliefel explained that their services are highly subsidized so that the students pay very little or in some cases, they do not pay at all.
“Our students pay a very small contribution towards their upkeep if their families are able, but many are from very poor families or have been abandoned so they don’t pay.
“Our focus is to rehabilitate and help them integrate into their local community, and into the regular schools later on,” she added.
Fliefel gave thanks to God during the interview that the school exists and shared her future hopes for the children.
“I hope to see these once little kids as men and women – successful, productive men and women… influencers. This is what I hope. “We are doing all this to enlighten their future and something else – because we enjoy what we do. We enjoy it a lot.”
To learn more about Al-Shurooq School For Blind Children, click here or visit their Facebook page here.
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