With unfaltering determination and family support, Heba el-Shurafa has achieved her dream of becoming a teacher
GAZA - Something special is going on in a classroom in the Shujaiya neighbourhood of Gaza city, and anyone lucky enough to be invited to sit in on a class is in for a unique experience. Watching the bond that is shared between young students and their teacher, Heba el-Shurafa, is inspiring; but it is more than just the usual student-teacher relationship. Heba connects with the children on a deeper level. She suffers from Down syndrome, as do they.
Having lived with the same genetic condition as her students, the 27-year-old teacher is uniquely placed to understand and meet the needs of her young charges.
Using all the teaching aids she has at her disposal, classes are basic but interactive and infused with compassion and patience. Shurafa teaches the children maths, religious studies, Arabic, and how to recognise their names written on cards; plus science classes for children in the primary grades.
"I could not be happier. This place is comfortable and I love my students. I like how I say the words and they repeat them after me," Shurafa told Middle East Eye with a contagious grin on her face.
Heba Sharafa, Gaza's first teacher with Down syndrome, is a thriving member of her community (MEE/Mohammed Asad)
Shurafa's devotion towards her students is evident not only from the playful and caring way they all interact, but also from the fact that her composure never seems to waver. No matter how many times she has to repeat a lesson before they fully grasp it, she continues to go at their pace, knowing that she will ultimately be rewarded when she finally sees them comprehend her lesson and progress to the next level.
Stimulation is a key element in Shurafa's teaching plan. She has no qualms about encouraging them with treats like chocolate and dessert, as well as loud applause for those who try extra hard. Her colourful classroom is also decorated with balloons and streamers in the hopes of making their work environment more appealing to them.
Lifelong support of family and friends
The direction Shurafa's life has taken has not come as a surprise to those who know her. As a child, Heba’s eagerness to learn was evident. Her former teacher, Nawal ben Saied, who still teaches at the charity Right to Live Society - told MEE that Shurafa has always been keen to learn and develop her life skills.
"She excelled in reading, writing, and counting. She could memorise songs, poems, and recite the holy Quran," ben Saied said. Her teacher added that Shurafa used to enjoy performing. She would sing, read poems, and perform plays on the school's stage.
Thanks to her family's lifelong efforts and the encouraging atmosphere Shurafa received during her developmental years both at home and in her school environment, she is thriving and is fully integrated into her local community.
At home, Shurafa leads a normal life and is known to be a social butterfly. "I go to visit my relatives. We celebrate different occasions together and have fun. I have never felt excluded when I am in their company. Everyone likes to talk to me," Shurafa said.
Shurafa's mother, Nuha Abu-Shaban, can still remember the moment when she first learned of her daughter's diagnosis. "It was the first time I'd heard of this medical condition, and when the doctor explained it to me, my tears overflowed and I was extremely worried about how I was going to raise my baby," she said.
However, ultimately deciding to take the news in a positive light, as a gift from God, she worked hard to develop her daughter's cognition, behaviour and communication skills as best as she could. "I decided to deal with her as a gift from Allah. She is a special and precious one to me," Abu-Shaban said. "Parenting a child with Down syndrome has never been an easy task, but I did not lose hope."
The challenges presented have not always been easy though, and progress has been slow at times. Abu-Shaban remembers a period when she would work with her daughter for three hours just to help her properly write out two lines.
Even when progress is made at a snail's pace, Abu-Shaban urges parents and family members of children with Down syndrome to never give up. "I call on all parents who have similar cases to embrace their children and fully commit to their responsibilities toward them," Abu-Shaban concluded.
Right to Live Society
Founded in 1993, The Right to Live Society aims to help integrate and rehabilitate children who are born with developmental problems such as Down syndrome and autism in Gaza.
The 22 classrooms and facilities at the centre are all designed to meet the different aspects of their physical and psychological needs. The open spaces include a playground where they have their daily break where they are encouraged to move around and get some exercise.
Vocational workshops are also incorporated into the programme to help some master crafts by which they can one day make a living and live independently. Many children make bamboo and wooden products, while others focus on sewing and embroidery.
Nabil Junied, director of The Right to Live's rehabilitation programmes, told MEE that the number of people who suffer from Down syndrome across the Strip is estimated to be around 1500.
The charity helps approximately 900 of these children, all of who have some sort of cognitive disability. Some 650 children are fully enrolled within the charity and have a daily timetable of activities, while the rest do not need to regularly visit the centre and get some kind of support at home.
"We are referred cases from newborns to those in their twenties. Our specialised teams work to help boost their potential for learning and development," Junied said.
The psychological and behavioural therapies the children receive at the charity help them on various fronts, including how to articulate their speech and communicate constructively.
Maryam Abu Mslam, the speech therapist at the centre, told MEE each child has a specially tailored programme made for them after a meticulous assessment of their abilities.
"Down syndrome is always accompanied by a difficulty in speaking, usually accompanied by an obvious stutter and other speech impediments. Our task is to help them overcome some of these problems, although some cases are easier than others," Abu Mslam said.
Heba Sharafa makes her students feel loved, valued and safe and wants them to prosper as she did (MEE/Mohammed Asad)
Junied noted that the skills and abilities of people with Down syndrome vary widely, as cases fluctuate from mild to severe. Unlike many of the others who benefited from Right to Live's support, Sharafa took on an academic path, and is the first person in Gaza with Down syndrome to become a teacher.
"Heba did well because she had relatively advanced skills, but certainly the special care that she has been lucky enough to receive from her family and the centre have enabled her to attain a higher level of achievement than many others," Junied concedes.
Sharafa has made quite a name for herself through her accomplishments, and interest in her story has encouraged Right to Live to start an extra class - a teacher-training group - that consists of six Down syndrome students. The goal is to train these young people to be teachers themselves.
Junied explained that in the past, many families would shy away from openly discussing the issues related to having a child with Down syndrome and would keep their children at home. But thanks to the work of the centre, Shurafa and many others in the field, barriers are slowly being broken down and an increasing number of families are visiting the charity asking for help for their children.
To facilitate knowledge and give families an open forum for information, awareness sessions are held regularly where families with children with intellectual disabilities are encouraged to accept the hand dealt to them and focus on giving their children the best lives possible.
War and siege
Due to the suffocating Israeli restrictions enforced on the coastal enclave since the siege began in 2007, and the successive brutal assaults, all facets of life in Gaza are affected children who have Down syndrome are not an exception to the grave tolls.
Right to Live Society is based in the war-ravaged Shujaiya neighbourhood and barely survived the war that destroyed the Strip in the summer of 2014, when one of its main buildings was hit by Israeli shrapnel. The scars of the bombing remain visible on the walls.
Ahmad el-Helo, executive director of the charity, told MEE that the Israeli blockade had thwarted their plans to extend their centre to absorb more of those children. "Israel has made it impossible to bring in the building materials to construct more facilities to administer a better service for larger numbers of children who had this condition," Helo said.
The lack of vital financial resources also poses a further challenge. The director added that they were forced to lay off 50 of their employees, which has in turn impacted the quality of the services presented to the children.
The decrease in the number of staff has meant that the remaining teachers have become overloaded with work, having to focus on 10 students per class instead of a more manageable five. This leaves the centre overstretched and the teacher's tasks have become more arduous.
"In each class there are not even two children who have the same cognitive level, so [a] great deal of work has to be done for each one of them," Helo added.
Yet Shurafa takes it all in her stride. Her young students each feel valued and safe. “They know they are cared for and treasured by me. Therefore, they and I hope that we are given our chance to live freely and prosper in our own community," Sharafa concluded.