Independent Appeal: Trampled because he could not hear

For the deaf children of Gaza, disability has a new and perilous dimension amid the fighting. Jan McGirk reports from Jabalia on the work of the Welfare Association, which provides specialised care
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Jihad Kafarneh finally cracked a smile yesterday. It was only the second time in three weeks, since the siege of Gaza was at its height. The 14-year-old Palestinian, who was born deaf in Beit Hanoun town, was a silent witness to the Israeli army's pre-dawn attack on a neighbour's four-storey house last month. Blood puddled an inch deep in the lane where 17 members of the al-Athamna family lay dying, blasted apart by tank shells.

Jihad had been curled up on his mattress, trying to figure out why shudders were suddenly wracking his body. He felt weird vibrations cramping deep in his gut, yet he was not sick. Could it be an earthquake? The treads of dozens of tanks outside rocked the bedroom floor while the staccato automatic gunfire raked walls and windows. He rushed outside to see. Unable to hear the shouts of troops ordering him to leave, the light-haired boy stood still, transfixed by the horror around him. The tang of blood and cordite stung the smoky air. Within moments furious Israeli soldiers rushed toward him. Jihad did not heed their commands so they kicked him to the ground. Boot-shaped bruises still mottle his skin.

For four days, Jihad cowered inside his home, too frightened to leave his bedroom and attend classes for the hearing impaired at the Jabalia Rehabilitation Society. His school for 90 children in northern Gaza is supported by the Welfare Association, one of the three charities picked for The Independent's 2006 Christmas Appeal. Today Jihad sits in a cosy nook in the school's library, surrounded by other deaf children who were just as confused and frightened by the Israeli military offensive, lyrically codenamed Operation Autumn Clouds, which had overrun their home town.

Jihad is no longer morose and watchful. He is the centre of attention, describing that awful night, using international sign language to choreograph a battle in the air. The other girls and boys interrupt, their hands a flurry of precise signs. A teacher and social worker oversee this discussion before it becomes a silent shoutdown. Eid Wahdan, a tall 12-year-old, tells with his hands how he had watched the fighting from his window until a bullet pierced his chest. He was unaware of any troops ordering him to get away, and they had aimed at a boy in pyjamas looking out of his bedroom window.

The children have drawn on white paper stick figures bristling with weapons and lop-sided stars of David on attack helicopters and tanks. In one drawing, a tall house collapses in a corner. When I point to a lone figure, sketched with a big knit cap, and ask why the mouth is drawn in such a grim line, the boys snicker at my naivete and one makes a bold sign: "He's a Palestinian with a rocket," the teacher translates. The children grin.

Communication skills are the aim of all the programmes for the deaf run by the Rehabilitation Society, which has been operating in Jabalia for 15 years. There is a sister school in Deir al-Balah Camp in central Gaza.

Speech therapy, which is provided for a wide range of disabled students, is paramount for the deaf. After a screening service calibrates their degree of hearing loss, professionals and volunteers are on hand to tailor the course to individual or group needs.

A visit to the innovative FM transmitter lab supported by the Welfare Association, where at first glance the students appear to be plugged into generic iPods, is a revelation. Soundwaves can be amplified until some profoundly deaf children are able to hear for the first time ever, albeit inside their earpieces.

"Youngsters will jump into the air at the novelty of hearing sound for the first time," says the director, Khalid Abu Shuaib. This wireless FM system works up to a range of about 60 metres from the teacher's desk, and in optimum cases, a pupil's hearing ability can be raised up to 80 per cent of normal capacity. Students are able to repeat teachers' phrases, learning to modulate volume and pitch so that eventually the non-deaf can understand them. One 16-year-old in a spangled scarf talks in a high-pitched voice and is shown how to bring the tone down.

"When the hearing ability goes up, so does their grades," Abu Shuaib said. "These sessions measurably lift confidence and their intelligence." The Welfare Association also provides free hearing aids, plus vital instructions on how to use them and keep them running in spite of Gaza's dire conditions. Family support and community integration are crucial factors, too, to prevent the deaf from becoming isolated with a disability which is invisible to the rest of the world.

Jabalia's principal audial technician, Akram Eid, is concerned that services must be limited to children over the age of four as diagnosing hearing loss in nursery-age children and starting therapy early would eliminate learning gaps and prevent social isolation. "Hi-tech equipment to measure the very young is extremely expensive," he said, "and right now our inability to test the little ones is what bothers me the most. But we are working on it." For more than three months, a blockade delayed medical equipment from entering Gaza, and five months of sustained military assaults increased the challenges inside the rehabilitation centre.

In an area as densely packed as the Gaza Strip, where 1.4 million people are crammed into a walled-off space 10km by 40km, the incidence of deafness is disproportionately high. Hearing loss tends to run in families, and Palestinian families are large.

The Jabalia school's energetic director, Hussein Abu Mansour, grew up in an extended family where five members have a disability. Consequently, his international sign language is as fluent as his Arabic or English, and he posts pictorials of the hand signals alongside translations in curvy Arabic script and English. Just one sign needs no translation: a notice barring any weapons from the campus.