Afak School: The east Jerusalem special needs school for Arab children

JERUSALEM AFFAIRS: Suzan Shihadih Ghanayem: “These children were kicked out of the system, and if they weren’t here, they would be on the streets.”

 SCENES FROM the Afak School near Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. (photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)
SCENES FROM the Afak School near Kibbutz Ramat Rahel.
(photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)

Some of the 183 students in the Afak School leave their homes in the Shuafat refugee camp or Kafr Akab or Silwan at 5 a.m. to make it to school on time.

The Jerusalem Municipality pays for the minibuses that bring them to this special education school on the edge of Sur Bahir, just a few hundred meters from Kibbutz Ramat Rahel.

Principal Suzan Shihadih Ghanayem opens the school at 7 a.m., a half hour before she is supposed to. When the students arrive, there is hot tea. Later in the day, there will be sandwiches, and once a week a hot lunch is prepared by the students themselves.

The students all have complicated learning issues like severe dyslexia and dysgraphia, along with ADHD or other health issues.

As this is a special education school, it goes from age 12 to 21, and there are 183 students currently registered. It is a mixed school where boys and girls learn together, and the children come from the northern edge of Jerusalem to the southern edge. Many of the children were unable to succeed in regular schools.

 SCENES FROM the Afak School near Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. (credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN) SCENES FROM the Afak School near Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. (credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)

“This school is like a life preserver for these kids,” Ghanayem told The Jerusalem Post in a wide-ranging interview in her office. 

“These children were kicked out of the system, and if they weren’t here, they would be on the streets.”

Suzan Shihadih Ghanayem

Each class is supposed to have only 12 students, but as she won’t turn anyone away, several classes have more than they should. One class has 18 students.

Ghanayem also made the controversial decision to switch from a curriculum that ends with the Tawjihi, the Palestinian matriculation exam, to one that prepares students for the Israeli bagrut (matriculation), mostly because the Tawjihi does not have accommodations for learning disabilities as the bagrut does.

Like everything in Jerusalem, that decision has political implications, as some Arabs feel that adopting the Israeli curriculum is acceptance of Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem in 1967. They say that east Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Most Arabs in the city are not citizens but residents.

Ghanayem was unapologetic about her decision to switch to the bagrut system and does not want to talk politics. It is simply better for the students, she said. The students get a technology bagrut, and a few are able to get a full bagrut that will allow them to study in Israeli universities. Some of the parents were hesitant about this decision at first, but she said they have come to realize that it is better for their children.

According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), 72% of Arab families in east Jerusalem live below the poverty line. In some students’ homes, there is actual food insecurity. Ghanayem recalled one student who successfully applied to the David Yellin Academic College of Education. She came to the school to do an interview on Zoom, as she did not have Internet at home.

The school is a colorful, encouraging place where most of the students actually seem happy to be there. There are solar panels outside providing some of the energy. There are outdoor bikes and other weight machines for kids who need to burn off extra energy. Inside, there are exhibits highlighting Palestinian culture and embroidery.

The students also get a lot of vocational training. There is a hair salon where students practice first on wigs and eventually on volunteers. There is a robotics lab. Each student gets an individualized program, with Ghanayem encouraging them to go as far as they can. Her efforts come as ACRI says that one-third of all Arab students in Jerusalem do not finish high school.

All of this costs money, which, as anyone who has sent kids to school in Jerusalem knows, is in short supply. Afak has partnered with Yad Elie, an NGO that provides sandwiches to thousands of children in both east and west Jerusalem. Yad Elie helped build the school’s kitchen and maintain its program for a healthy lifestyle.

During COVID, the school stayed open, like all special ed schools in Jerusalem. But because of COVID restrictions, it was unable to make and serve food, so Yad Elie helped provide a catered hot lunch for the students. Most days the school provides everything that is needed for sandwiches, as well as a weekly hot lunch. Ghanayem said she wishes she had a budget for a hot meal for the students each day.

She said that for some of the students, the food they get at school is most of what they eat all day.

“If you are hungry, you can’t learn,” she said.

The students fill out a form each day “ordering” their sandwiches for the next day. The choices include hummus and labaneh, food that is healthy, part of Arab culture and familiar to them. Five or six students make the sandwiches each day.

The food program is part of an overall approach that Ghanayem wants to inculcate into the students, which includes healthy eating, sustainability and environmental education. Students who are able to do a bagrut in environmental education.

According to ACRI, there is a crisis in the east Jerusalem school system, with a lack of some 2,000 classrooms. Students from the higher socioeconomic strata in east Jerusalem send their children to private schools rather than public schools like Afak.

Ghanayem, who also teaches special education at David Yellin, said her ultimate goal is to close the school.

“These children really should be in the regular school system,” she said. “But until then, we’re here for them.”

Afak: Simple food for a complex reality

The menu at Afak is quite limited. In fact, there were only three dishes when I ate lunch there recently: a well-spiced mejadra, a green salad and a cup of leben or low-fat yogurt. Oh, and some really good olives.

The “chefs,” dressed in white, chef uniforms trimmed with red, are clearly proud of their dishes. The mejadra is plated beautifully, topped with onions cooked in olive oil and sumac. The salad is dressed with oil and vinegar. And the leben blends well with the flavors of the mejadra.

By now you may have guessed that I wasn’t really at a restaurant, but eating lunch in a school cafeteria – at the Afak School in Sur Bahir in southeastern Jerusalem. Afak is a school for kids with special needs, including severe learning disabilities and behavioral or emotional issues. The students come from all over east Jerusalem.

The school offers a lot of vocational training, and the kitchen is next to the occupational therapy room. There they can practice banking as well as other skills. There is also a robotics lab and a fully equipped hair salon along with wigs to practice on.

But back to the kitchen. It is partially funded by Yad Elie, an organization dedicated to providing school lunches to both Arab and Jewish children in Jerusalem who are suffering from food insecurity. In this case, the children get sandwiches every day, and fill out an order the day before specifying which type of sandwich they want.

Once a week, each child gets a hot lunch made partly by fellow students, who enjoy cooking.

“I really love to cook,” said Mohammed, 13, one of the chefs. “It’s really a lot of fun.”

The young chefs clearly took pride in their work and watched me closely as I ate. I was quite hungry and devoured the mejadra and salad. I would be happy to receive it as a side dish in any restaurant I visit.