From little acorns...

A partnership between Ra’anana and Kalansuwa is changing the lives of disabled children in the Israeli-Arab community.

April 9, 2010 23:14
A MOTHER and child use the Snoezelen multi-sensory

arab israeli mother child 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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On a beautiful spring morning in the Israeli-Arab city of Kalansuwa, a group of lively two- and three-year-olds are enjoying a game with their carer. The children sit in a semi-circle, singing and waving their hands in the air, ready to catch a bright red ball.

These are not just any kindergarteners, but children with a range of special needs from Down Syndrome to more severe physical disabilities like spina bifida. They are being cared for and treated at Kalansuwa’s Sindian Center, part of a wide-reaching project for disabled children established by the Ra’anana-based charity Beit Issie Shapiro.

The percentage of disabled Israeli-Arab children is greater than that of disabled Jewish children, yet there are far fewer services for special-needs children in Arab communities. As a result, says Beit Issie Shapiro, 92 percent of disabled Israeli-Arab children do not receive the full range of support, treatments and assistance that they need. 

In order to improve the situation, in 2001 Beit Issie decided to establish a center in an Arab community that could help local families. The result was the Sindian Center, opened as a joint project with local professionals in Kalansuwa, a small Arab city with a higher than average rate of disability. Over the past nine years, Sindian – which means “oak” in Arabic – has had a huge impact on the local community.

Sindian’s director, Raba Zmiro, explains that the center provides a wide range of services for disabled Israeli-Arab children and their families, not just in Kalansuwa but across the southern meshulash – the triangle of Israeli-Arab towns in the East Sharon plain.

“Every child has his or her own special therapy program,” explains Raba. “These can include physical, group and community therapies.”

At Sindian, the focus is on the child as an individual, taking into consideration his or her own particular needs and personality.

Sindian’s projects include an Early Intervention Center for specialist treatments and therapies, a Home Treatment project aimed at the poorest families, and a Family Advancement Center offering advice and emotional support to families struggling to cope with a disabled child. “The crucial thing about all of these services is that they are given in Arabic,” says Raba.

Wafa Abu Zmiro, Sindian’s coordinator, agrees that the provision of services in Arabic has been momentous for disabled children and their families.

“Previously, there was little or no information available in Arabic, so families who didn’t know Hebrew too well were excluded from mainstream services,” she explains. “Plus, it’s very important that disabled children are treated in their mother tongue so they can understand what is happening.”

Also essential, Wafa adds, is the fact that Sindian’s services are available locally, and for free. “Most families do not have the money to pay for therapies, or to travel to other places like Netanya to reach them,” she emphasizes.

Local disabled children are brought to the Sindian Center – housed in a converted apartment building – for daycare and therapies. Light, bright and airy, the center is decorated with hand-drawn wall art. Laughter and cheerful voices are heard everywhere.

Here each child is cared for and individual personalities are given space to develop. As well as artworks, photographs of the children decorate the walls, including a large montage of snaps of a laughing child whose bright personality beams out of each picture.

“She was one of our stars, she smiles like that all the time,” says Raba proudly. “She’s moved on to a regular school now.”

In one sunlit room adorned with cheery murals of Disney characters, two three-year-old girls, Lama and Halla, are enjoying a game of catch. They laugh in delight as they try to catch a soft ball that is gently thrown to them. Both these girls have severe spina bifida, a congenital disorder that affects the spine. As a result they cannot stand or walk, and require feeding via a gastric tube.

Another child, also with spina bifida, is zipping around the center on a special walking frame, taking part in a physiotherapy treatment that is also – judging from her laughter – a great deal of fun. This is four-year-old Sadil, an intellectually gifted child who will go on to attend a regular school.

“We are keen for children like Sadil, Halla and Lama to attend mainstream schools,” says Raba. “Children with disabilities should be a part of the community.”

Integrating special needs children in the mainstream community is one of Sindian’s success stories. Thanks to Sindian, Kalansuwa’s schools have become so skilled at teaching disabled children in regular classrooms that special-needs children from neighboring towns like Taibe travel to Kalansuwa to attend school.

In another room, a group of Down Syndrome children are sitting attentively in a circle. Their attention is focused on their carer as she shows them how to play a game with brightly colored hoops. Each child in turn throws a hoop over a cone, as the rest of the group laughs and claps happily. 

The game is more than just fun, explains Raba. “It teaches them patience, how to take turns and play together in a group, and it helps them learn new words.”

Some of the children under Sindian’s care are more complex cases and require intensive therapies to help them improve. One of these is four-year-old Docha, who has various disabilities. “When Docha first came to Sindian, she couldn’t eat,” recalls Raba. “Now we’re so happy to see her enjoying her food.”

Sindian’s Early Intervention Center also incorporates several highly specialized treatments for more severely disabled children, including those who cannot fully use their hands, or who have poor eyesight. One of these treatments is a Snoezelen, a multi-sensory therapy room with soft mattresses, soft colored lights and gentle gurgling water. For severely disabled children, the Snoezelen is a comforting, relaxing and therapeutic experience and helps improve muscle tone.

“It feels like being back in the mother’s womb,” explains Raba, adding that Beit Issie Shapiro was the first institution in Israel to import the Snoezelen from Holland.

Another of Sindian’s key projects is its Family Advancement Center, which provides a helpline for parents of disabled children as well as a community outreach program. The helpline is run by Arabic-speaking staff and volunteers and provides parents with information about the services and treatments they can receive. It also offers emotional and social support.

“Emotional support is absolutely critical,” says Wafa Abu Zmiro. “The families of disabled children face enormous difficulties and find it hard to cope. Plus many struggle financially and don’t get any social support.” The lack of social support is often compounded by the stigma about disability that still prevails in Israeli-Arab communities.

“Before we started the Family Advancement Center, there was nobody to guide these families,” recalls Raba. “At first, we had a tough time convincing people that there really was an Arabic-speaking service. We had to go to people’s homes, talk to them, explain things in person. Now they call us up and ask for help. This is the big change that we have made.”

“The center has made a huge improvement for parents in terms of access to support and information,” agrees Wafa. “Every time a family has a dilemma, they get in touch with us and find an answer. We offer help to anyone who asks.”

The Sindian Center’s services are available not just to Kalansuwa residents. They also extend to families across the southern triangle, including the neighboring cities of Taibe and Tira. “We have excellent relationships with health clinics in the triangle, and we work with the local tipot halav (mother and baby clinics) too,” says Wafa. “It’s a case of professional bodies like the health clinics turning to another professional body – the Sindian Center – for advice.”

The Sindian Center is constantly on the lookout for new ways to reach out to the community. Its most recent project is an Early Intervention Program that targets the very youngest disabled children – small babies who are not receiving therapies. Sindian’s social workers pay personal visits to their families and explain that help is available.

“We started this project last year,” says Sojoud, a social worker. “Some of these babies have very severe disabilities. Sometimes their mothers don’t know the extent of the difficulties.” Sojoud and her team bring the children into the center for treatments. “Right now this project is unique to Kalansuwa,” adds Sojoud with pride. “It’s not available anywhere else in the Arab or Jewish communities.”

Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the Sindian Center is the sheer determination of its staff and volunteers to accelerate social change, not just by reaching out to special needs children, but to their families and beyond to the local community. One of the reasons community outreach is such a big part of the Sindian Center’s work is the wider problem of social stigma and lack of understanding about disability in the Israeli Arab community, explains Wafa. Sindian aims to change these attitudes.

“We want to bring the community into the center,” agrees Raba. “To show them how to accept and help disabled people.”

Another significant social change that Sindian is making in Kalansuwa is through its development of local community volunteers. Sindian currently has seven volunteers, including 37-year-old Nawaf Zmiro. A Kalansuwa local like his colleagues, Zmiro was born with physical disabilities and is a wheelchair user. His passion for the Sindian Center’s work shows in the time, skill and considerable energy he devotes to providing advice and support via the helpline, and in actively promoting the center in the community.

Zmiro describes how his own experiences growing up with severe physical disabilities have helped him understand the impact the Sindian Center has made on disabled children and their families.

“I come from a typical large family with many children,” he recalls. “When I was a child, there wasn’t any help or advice for families like mine.” 

The everyday issues of coping with a disabled child can make life tough for families, says Zmiro. Parents don’t know how to cope, and they feel isolated. The Sindian Center’s community outreach program is changing all that.

“We go out into the community. We run courses for parents and hold public lectures to help families and the wider community understand about disability, about how to cope with disabled people. We organize fun days with local schools that include entire families.”

These regular public lectures are held in Kalansuwa’s community center and cover a variety of topics relating to disability – at an upcoming talk in April, professionals from Sindian will explain about rights for disabled children and youth. Zmiro talks at these grassroots activities, relating his personal experiences growing up with disability.

“If it helps someone, it’s worth it,” he says. “We sit with the parents and talk about their personal issues.”

Zmiro emphasizes that via these outreach programs, Sindian does more than provide advice. It also gives hope to disabled youngsters and a sense of inclusion.

“The Sindian Center has a huge influence on disabled people’s lives,” he says with emotion. “It helps suffering children, it helps families, it improves their quality of life and personal dignity.”

As a result of his social outreach work, Zmiro has become a well-known and respected figure in Kalansuwa. He is proud of the huge strides the Sindian Center is making to improve the acceptance and understanding of disability. “We’ve really brought change to the local community,” he smiles.

Thanks to these grassroots public relations, the Sindian Center has managed to forge connections with influential community and spiritual leaders within Israeli-Arab society. These relationships are used to help raise awareness as well as much-needed funds, explains Zmiro. Sometimes they have helped strengthen links between the Arab and Jewish communities, such as the participation of Kalansuwa native kadi Dr Ahmad Natur in a conference on disability organized by Beit Issie Shapiro.

The Sindian Center’s excellent community relations have helped attract donations from local wealthy individuals and from mosques – another first for the Israeli-Arab community, which is accustomed to donating for religious appeals rather than to social projects.

Sindian is also providing professional employment in the local community – most significantly, for women. After nine years of operation, the center is staffed entirely by Arab-Israeli professionals – a remarkable achievement, says director Raba Zmiro.

“When we first opened in 2001, it was very hard to find Arabic-speaking staff,” says Raba. “We worked together to create a team. Each of us has a place here, we build the programs together, and we discuss everything and support each other. That’s what makes the difference.”

Creating this close-knit team involved a lot of hard work and investment, but it has paid off. Today, Sindian provides training for Arab-Israeli social workers and other caring professionals from all over the country, and even further afield. “We have trained a group of physiotherapists from Jordan here,” says Raba. “You know, in Jordan they don’t have any places like this.”

Raba and her team of staff and volunteers are all proud of the fact that the Sindian Center is the first institution in Israel to treat the family as a whole. “The work is tough, spiritually as well as physically,” says Raba. “But it’s incredibly rewarding. Every one of our team is excited to come to work.”

After almost a decade of partnership, Sindian and Beit Issie are now looking toward the future. The Sindian Center has outgrown its current accommodation, which is no longer sufficient to meet the community’s needs. Raba says that what is needed is a purpose-built center.

“It’s my dream to build a dedicated center here in Kalansuwa,” says Raba. “Such a center could provide services for more children, more families; we could offer things we aren’t able to give today, like a hydrotherapy pool.”

The project’s cost is estimated at several million dollars, and Raba says that land as well as donations is needed. Building a dedicated center will take a great deal of time and effort, as well as considerable assistance from the local community.

The good news is that there seems to be a great deal of determination among the local community to improve and modernize their city – Kalansuwa is one of 12 Israeli-Arab towns recently earmarked for inclusion in a government-sponsored NIS 800-million improvement program, after much active lobbying on behalf of residents by Mayor Mahmoud Khadeja. Perhaps some of the same community will for social change and improvement could help the Sindian Center and Beit Issie achieve their dream of a dedicated center in Kalansuwa.

“Our future depends on the Kalansuwa municipality to provide land, and of course we need a lot of donations,” says Raba. 

“But it will happen. We will build the center together. Inshallah – God willing.”

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