Hatem Hamdan has defied all odds to have a fulfilling life, although his visual impairment could have denied him this potential. In the Gaza Strip, where cultural stigma stands strong, visually impaired children are often made invisible and cut off from vital services such as education. “My parents divorced when they discovered I had a visual impairment,” Hatem explains. “So my mother was forced to find a job to support us both, and it was in her work place that she first heard of the Rehabilitation Center for the Visually Impaired (RCVI).”
Mercy-USA is supporting this important education project operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA.)
The 53-year-old looks out of the window, his eyes blinking against the strong light, and watches the children running happily in the playground below. He is now a teacher here, having taught himself to read and write in the same way as sighted people.
Behind a metal door painted with a huge yellow sun is the RCVI, also known as the ‘Noor Center’ (Center of Light). It is the only school of its kind in the Gaza Strip and is run by UNRWA for students from grades one to six. The ultimate aim of the center is to provide the 470 children in the school with the necessary skills, academic knowledge and support to integrate them into local schools, and therefore, further integrate into society.
World Health Organization (WHO) research shows that 90 per cent of the world’s visually impaired live in low-income countries and that 80 per cent of all visual impairment can be prevented or cured. The children in this school are not only vulnerable due to their visual impairments, but also as a result of the current humanitarian situation in Gaza. The economy is still crippled after the 2014 hostilities and the effects of the ongoing Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza, ongoing for a decade, and characterized by widespread unemployment and low income.
In one of Hatem’s classes, Ahmad, a boy in fourth grade, assembles his Prodigi reader on the table and begins reading from the magnified text. The tools have become a lot more sophisticated since Hatem’s school days and the school is equipped with specialized materials such as this Prodigi and also the Voice Dream Reader, which gives blind and low vision students access to written information on a mobile device.
There are also multiple Perkins Braille typing machines in another classroom next door where blind children are busily typing a dictation.
Ahmad understands about social exclusion: “I had many problems before I came to this school. I was sad and always playing on my own because I couldn’t see very well.” He has been at the school since first grade and can now read and write almost as well as a sighted student with the help of the specialist equipment. He has regular eye tests and his eyesight has improved significantly in the time he has attended the school. Ahmad is now preparing to be integrated into a community school in the Gaza Strip.
Mo’men, another student in fourth grade, is playing in a green, oasis-like garden in the center of the school. There are slides and swings and climbing frames inside a border of roses and other flowering plants. He happily runs up the steps to the slide and goes down it – his friend Ahmad close behind him. “My eye exam today was good. My sight is better than before and I am really happy about going to a regular school next. I will get used to it and play and make friends there.”
Mercy-USA is proud to support this vital project. Please help us continue to offer hope to these beautiful children!
Watch a short video profiling Ahmad, Mo’men and their teacher Hatem Hamdan here: