Palestinian, 44 years

Participant in an exchange program for Israelis and Palestinians who work with disabled children

“When I went there for the first time, I felt excited and afraid at the same time. Excited to find out the way Israelis work with the disabled, to see new approaches, to learn. Excited too, because I was crossing the checkpoint, away from Palestine. It felt like: ‘this is freedom, I am out!’ But then, I realized just how different I am. I wear a headscarf, I am not educated. I learned by doing, I just took some courses. I was afraid they would not accept me.

We were in a room, the Israeli and Palestinian colleagues, doing activities. We were all seated on the ground. That was so nice and different: they do not have this hierarchy. I felt like they compliment each other, almost like they are one hand. The same goes for the way they treat the disabled children. They treat them like normal human beings: they talk to them, laugh with them, make contact.

In Palestine, people feel shame towards disabled children, especially the children with multiple disabilities with whom I work. They are difficult to control, make strange sounds, jump and bite. Parents keep them indoors. Or rather: the father does not help, so the mother has to stay home, especially in the villages. The children are locked in a room and tied with a rope.

It generally takes at least a year for me to get the father’s approval to take the child out on the street. Or to convince him to buy a cheap phone for his wife, so we can call her. Once, I found a grown-up disabled woman in a Bedouin family who had been raised by the goats and sheep since birth. She could not speak, the only thing she could say was ‘baa’. In the end, they allowed me to take her away, after I promised I would not tell anyone which family she was from.

We used to bring the children to our institute, where they could stay. We would teach them to eat with a spoon, to go to the toilet or to deal with anger. But we nearly ran out of money, so we do not have the resources for that anymore. I do mainly house visits now, to around 30 families. The Palestinian government never paid one dime to help us, even though I applied for funding many times. It is not important to them. We exist on foreign funding.

Some children do not even have birth certificates. We help the parents with their administration. We go with them to the public hospital for medication. Some parents refuse to use the medication, so we go there every two days to check. I do not blame them, I just try to teach them.

Because of the financial problems, I almost lost hope. Then, this project with the Israelis came along. I feel inspired by the way they work. They also send goods. I never ask for money, though. I am extremely happy with the visa they provide so I can visit them. I feel respected by them and gained more confidence in the work I do. Some of my Palestinian colleagues say: ‘I go there to learn, not to shake hands’. For me, it is not about politics, it is about individuals. There are bad Jews, but there are also bad Palestinians. I have some Israeli friends. Some of them are scared to visit me at home, to come to Palestine. I bring them here as ‘foreigners’, so they do not have to be afraid. For me, these connections, that is what peace is.”