From little acorns...

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

arab israeli mother child 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
arab israeli mother child 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 ofservices in Arabic has been momentous for disabled children and theirfamilies.
“Previously, there was little or no information available in Arabic, sofamilies who didn’t know Hebrew too well were excluded from mainstreamservices,” she explains. “Plus, it’s very important that disabledchildren are treated in their mother tongue so they can understand whatis happening.”
Also essential, Wafa adds, is the fact that Sindian’s services areavailable locally, and for free. “Most families do not have the moneyto pay for therapies, or to travel to other places like Netanya toreach them,” she emphasizes.
Local disabled children are brought to the Sindian Center – housed in aconverted apartment building – for daycare and therapies. Light, brightand airy, the center is decorated with hand-drawn wall art. Laughterand cheerful voices are heard everywhere.
Here each child is cared for and individual personalities are givenspace to develop. As well as artworks, photographs of the childrendecorate the walls, including a large montage of snaps of a laughingchild 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, twothree-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 gentlythrown to them. Both these girls have severe spina bifida, a congenitaldisorder 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 ona special walking frame, taking part in a physiotherapy treatment thatis also – judging from her laughter – a great deal of fun. This isfour-year-old Sadil, an intellectually gifted child who will go on toattend a regular school.
“We are keen for children like Sadil, Halla and Lama to attendmainstream schools,” says Raba. “Children with disabilities should be apart of the community.”
Integrating special needs children in the mainstream community is oneof Sindian’s success stories. Thanks to Sindian, Kalansuwa’s schoolshave become so skilled at teaching disabled children in regularclassrooms that special-needs children from neighboring towns likeTaibe travel to Kalansuwa to attend school.
In another room, a group of Down Syndrome children are sittingattentively in a circle. Their attention is focused on their carer asshe shows them how to play a game with brightly colored hoops. Eachchild in turn throws a hoop over a cone, as the rest of the grouplaughs and claps happily. 
The game is more than just fun, explains Raba. “It teaches thempatience, how to take turns and play together in a group, and it helpsthem learn new words.”
Some of the children under Sindian’s care are more complex cases andrequire intensive therapies to help them improve. One of these isfour-year-old Docha, who has various disabilities. “When Docha firstcame to Sindian, she couldn’t eat,” recalls Raba. “Now we’re so happyto see her enjoying her food.”
Sindian’s Early Intervention Center also incorporates several highlyspecialized treatments for more severely disabled children, includingthose who cannot fully use their hands, or who have poor eyesight. Oneof these treatments is a Snoezelen, a multi-sensory therapy room withsoft mattresses, soft colored lights and gentle gurgling water. Forseverely disabled children, the Snoezelen is a comforting, relaxing andtherapeutic experience and helps improve muscle tone.
“It feels like being back in the mother’s womb,” explains Raba, addingthat Beit Issie Shapiro was the first institution in Israel to importthe 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 acommunity outreach program. The helpline is run by Arabic-speakingstaff and volunteers and provides parents with information about theservices and treatments they can receive. It also offers emotional andsocial support.
“Emotional support is absolutely critical,” says Wafa Abu Zmiro. “Thefamilies of disabled children face enormous difficulties and find ithard to cope. Plus many struggle financially and don’t get any socialsupport.” The lack of social support is often compounded by the stigmaabout disability that still prevails in Israeli-Arab communities.
“Before we started the Family Advancement Center, there was nobody toguide these families,” recalls Raba. “At first, we had a tough timeconvincing people that there really was an Arabic-speaking service. Wehad 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 wehave made.”
“The center has made a huge improvement for parents in terms of accessto support and information,” agrees Wafa. “Every time a family has adilemma, they get in touch with us and find an answer. We offer help toanyone who asks.”
The Sindian Center’s services are available not just to Kalansuwaresidents. They also extend to families across the southern triangle,including the neighboring cities of Taibe and Tira. “We have excellentrelationships with health clinics in the triangle, and we work with thelocal tipot halav (mother and baby clinics) too,” says Wafa. “It’s acase of professional bodies like the health clinics turning to anotherprofessional body – the Sindian Center – for advice.”
The Sindian Center is constantly on the lookout for new ways to reachout to the community. Its most recent project is an Early InterventionProgram that targets the very youngest disabled children – small babieswho are not receiving therapies. Sindian’s social workers pay personalvisits 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 theirmothers don’t know the extent of the difficulties.” Sojoud and her teambring the children into the center for treatments. “Right now thisproject is unique to Kalansuwa,” adds Sojoud with pride. “It’s notavailable anywhere else in the Arab or Jewish communities.”
Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the Sindian Center is the sheerdetermination of its staff and volunteers to accelerate social change,not just by reaching out to special needs children, but to theirfamilies and beyond to the local community. One of the reasonscommunity outreach is such a big part of the Sindian Center’s work isthe wider problem of social stigma and lack of understanding aboutdisability in the Israeli Arab community, explains Wafa. Sindian aimsto 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 Kalansuwais through its development of local community volunteers. Sindiancurrently has seven volunteers, including 37-year-old Nawaf Zmiro. AKalansuwa local like his colleagues, Zmiro was born with physicaldisabilities and is a wheelchair user. His passion for the SindianCenter’s work shows in the time, skill and considerable energy hedevotes to providing advice and support via the helpline, and inactively promoting the center in the community.
Zmiro describes how his own experiences growing up with severe physicaldisabilities have helped him understand the impact the Sindian Centerhas 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 likemine.” 
The everyday issues of coping with a disabled child can make life toughfor families, says Zmiro. Parents don’t know how to cope, and they feelisolated. The Sindian Center’s community outreach program is changingall that.
“We go out into the community. We run courses for parents and holdpublic lectures to help families and the wider community understandabout disability, about how to cope with disabled people. We organizefun days with local schools that include entire families.”
These regular public lectures are held in Kalansuwa’s community centerand cover a variety of topics relating to disability – at an upcomingtalk in April, professionals from Sindian will explain about rights fordisabled children and youth. Zmiro talks at these grassrootsactivities, relating his personal experiences growing up withdisability.
“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 morethan provide advice. It also gives hope to disabled youngsters and asense 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-knownand respected figure in Kalansuwa. He is proud of the huge strides theSindian Center is making to improve the acceptance and understanding ofdisability. “We’ve really brought change to the local community,” hesmiles.
Thanks to these grassroots public relations, the Sindian Center hasmanaged to forge connections with influential community and spiritualleaders within Israeli-Arab society. These relationships are used tohelp raise awareness as well as much-needed funds, explains Zmiro.Sometimes they have helped strengthen links between the Arab and Jewishcommunities, such as the participation of Kalansuwa native kadi DrAhmad Natur in a conference on disability organized by Beit IssieShapiro.
The Sindian Center’s excellent community relations have helped attractdonations from local wealthy individuals and from mosques – anotherfirst for the Israeli-Arab community, which is accustomed to donatingfor religious appeals rather than to social projects.
Sindian is also providing professional employment in the localcommunity – most significantly, for women. After nine years ofoperation, 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-speakingstaff,” says Raba. “We worked together to create a team. Each of us hasa place here, we build the programs together, and we discuss everythingand support each other. That’s what makes the difference.”
Creating this close-knit team involved a lot of hard work andinvestment, but it has paid off. Today, Sindian provides training forArab-Israeli social workers and other caring professionals from allover the country, and even further afield. “We have trained a group ofphysiotherapists from Jordan here,” says Raba. “You know, in Jordanthey don’t have any places like this.”
Raba and her team of staff and volunteers are all proud of the factthat the Sindian Center is the first institution in Israel to treat thefamily as a whole. “The work is tough, spiritually as well asphysically,” says Raba. “But it’s incredibly rewarding. Every one ofour team is excited to come to work.”
After almost a decade of partnership, Sindian and Beit Issie are nowlooking toward the future. The Sindian Center has outgrown its currentaccommodation, which is no longer sufficient to meet the community’sneeds. Raba says that what is needed is a purpose-built center.
“It’s my dream to build a dedicated center here in Kalansuwa,” saysRaba. “Such a center could provide services for more children, morefamilies; we could offer things we aren’t able to give today, like ahydrotherapy pool.”
The project’s cost is estimated at several million dollars, and Rabasays that land as well as donations is needed. Building a dedicatedcenter will take a great deal of time and effort, as well asconsiderable assistance from the local community.
The good news is that there seems to be a great deal of determinationamong the local community to improve and modernize their city –Kalansuwa is one of 12 Israeli-Arab towns recently earmarked forinclusion in a government-sponsored NIS 800-million improvementprogram, after much active lobbying on behalf of residents by MayorMahmoud Khadeja. Perhaps some of the same community will for socialchange and improvement could help the Sindian Center and Beit Issieachieve 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.”