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Disabled teacher in Gaza inspires his students to never give up

A young teacher who lost three limbs in an Israeli missile strike leads by example, showing his young students how to overcome adversity
Ahmed al-Sawaferi, is an inspiration to his students, living life to the fullest despite being confined to a wheelchair (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

GAZA CITY - In swift but careful movements, Ahmed al-Sawaferi, 25, moves around his tiny apartment. The same hand that places a teapot on the fire then maneuvers his wheelchair as he gets his things ready for the day ahead.

It’s time to say goodbye to his children: Jana, 4 and Motasem 10 months - before he leaves for Safad School in Zaytoun, one of the areas next to Shejaiya, east of Gaza City, a neighbourhood hard hit in last summer’s attack by Israel. He drives to the school determined to be as independent as possible and ensure that his own will should decide his future and not his disability. 

As he makes his way around his neighbourhood, he cannot help but remember how drastically his life changed in a split second last year. One minute he was heading home to study for an exam and the next an Israeli missile struck and both his legs and one of his arms were torn from his body, rendering him wheelchair bound.

A few fingers remain on his left hand. They clutch at a piece of chalk as he writes notes on the classroom blackboard for his young students.

“Today’s lesson is about Islamic values and respecting the rights of your neighbours and all people,” he says to his students as he begins the class.

His voice is much stronger than those of the other teachers who share his corridor and his students pay close attention to their Palestinian, student teacher as he sits in his wheelchair, teaching the principles and values of steadfastness and survival; an important lesson given all of the odds stacked against them by virtue of where they live. 

He explains to Middle East Eye that despite his disability, he remains steadfast and focused. “The Israeli occupation may have amputated a huge section of my body but, thanks to God, they could not amputate my determination and willingness to rise, day after day, and continue my Islamic studies and determination to graduate from college.”

“Today, I am living my life to the fullest - nothing can stop me,” says Sawaferi as he rolls his wheelchair out of his classroom at break-time.

“I teach the children that from the dust of destruction we will rise and resist,” he tells MEE.

Sawaferi is due to take a BA in Islamic studies after finishing his final university semester in June. He is more determined than ever to focus not on his disabilities but on his abilities to successfully teach a new generation. That will be his victory and his legacy, he says.

“It is a strange feeling, to sit in the same classroom where I was once a student. Now I am the teacher and colleague to my previous teachers.”

Sawaferi makes his way over to a bench where his students are sitting, and explains how he sat in the same spot, 17 years ago, dreaming of becoming a teacher.

“I never thought that I would be a teacher with challenged abilities. Nonetheless, my dream came true and nothing can stop me. Nothing should stop us because the occupation will end,” he says, as he moves himself to the soccer field, where he plays football with the students - using his only remaining hand.

With his wide, bright smile and neatly trimmed beard, he draws the attention of all the students on the field, who come to greet him.

Sawaferi, is full of fond memories of his school, recalling the days when he was a student, playing soccer with his friends. Now, he still plays soccer - with friends and with his own children.

Eight-year-old Amjad Tafesh stands in front of his teacher and whispers shyly, “I am very proud of you, and I look up to you Mr. Ahmed.” He boasts proudly to MEE that his teacher is still strong despite his pain and difficulties.

For this wheelchair-bound teacher, his profession brings him unfettered pride and joy. His key message to each of his children is to love, respect and value their education and their nation more and more each day.  

Sawaferi is aware that teaching in school doesn’t give him a reliable income - thousands of other teachers also are paid sporadically by the government in Gaza - but he struggles on because the message of values and principles is most important, he says.

Sawaferi is one of thousands of Palestinians who have incurred physical injuries and now have challenged abilities as a result of the ongoing conflict with Israel. In most cases, they receive insufficient rehabilitation due to the Israeli imposed siege on the Gaza strip, but Sawaferi says this should not be the end.

“My message to all disabled people is not to forget life and give in to despair. There is no life with despair, and there should be no despair in life.” 

Sawaferi continues to bounce the soccer ball while chasing his students, proving that the will is as strong as muscle and bone, if not stronger.

It is the will of a brain that is ready to challenge that counts -  life doesn’t end in a wheelchair for Ahmed al-Sawaferi. He lives on the principle that for each end there is always a new beginning. From the look of admiration in his students eyes, it's obvious that his message of hope and strength is not being lost on the next generation, and that he is a source of hope and pride for his fellow Gazans.

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