Life lessons

Acre's bombed el-Mahaba kindergarten for handicapped kids faces additional challenges.

school kids 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
school kids 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The one school in Acre that took a direct hit from a rocket during the war happens to be the only school in the city that serves both Jewish and Arab pupils - the el-Mahaba ("love" in Arabic) kindergarten for mentally and emotionally handicapped kids. The outer and inner walls of the school are blasted with hundreds of pockmarks from the ball-bearings in the rocket, which landed in the little playground outside. Broken glass covers the floor of the two classrooms, where 10 Jewish students studied in Hebrew and eight Arab students studied in Arabic. "They told us it would be fixed up and we would be able to come back in two months. I hope it's only two months," said Berlin Ouda, who teaches the Arab pupils. A week before this coming Sunday's start of the school year she was at el-Mahaba with Inbal Friedman, who teaches the Jewish pupils, and their teaching assistants to gather up the toys, games, school supplies, drawings, photos and everything else that survived the attack. The photos show the Arab and Jewish kids together on an outing in the forest and at their summer camp. "Why, davka, did this school have to be hit?" is the question Friedman has been asking herself since that July 30 morning. "It's an example of how things should be." As a whole, Acre, a city of 53,000 on the Mediterranean coast some 25 km. south of the Lebanese border, is widely considered an example of how Jews and Arabs should get along. "There are no Jews and Arabs here, we're all citizens of the State of Israel," said Nadal Abu Kher, who has a daughter at el-Mahaba. Jews and Arabs, the latter making up about 30% of the population, commonly live together in the same apartment buildings (Mayor Shimon Lankri being an example), they work together, shop together, lie on the beach together. In many cases, they sat out the war in bomb shelters together. Six residents - five Jews and an Arab - were killed by the 106 rockets that fell on the city. Fifteen people were badly injured, and about 200 were mildly injured. Acre's housing stock, in general, is very old, rickety and vulnerable. Twelve buildings were damaged irreparably by the rockets, while another 60 that were hit are in good enough shape to be fixed up (including el-Mahaba kindergarten, which just barely made it into the second category). AT A BUSY stationery store in the middle of town, Soli Zabaliev, 13, was buying school supplies with her aunt, Zehava. The girl was too shy to answer questions, but her aunt said Soli "still gets scared and cries when there's a noise. She likes school, she likes to study, but it's going to be hard leaving her family and home and going back to school." It will also be hard for Sharon Ilyagurev, 12, said her mother Mazal: "She didn't have a real summer vacation; she didn't leave the house throughout the whole war." During the first two weeks or so of the academic year, Acre's schools will be inundated with educational psychologists, art therapists, music therapists, female IDF soldiers and other personnel brought to help the 8,400 pupils rebound from the trauma of the war. "We're going to do a lot of yoga, sports, games, trips, social activities and therapy to give them the opportunity for emotional release," said Nurit Ben-Shoshan, head of education for the city. Acre's oldest school, Weizmann Elementary School for Science and Technology, got a few of its windows broken by the force of the Katyushas that fell on the beach nearby. This week the hallways were filled with workmen, who were not only replacing the broken windows, but sprucing up the school's drab interior in general for the sake of teacher and student morale. "For the first two weeks we won't press the kids with learning a lot of material and taking tests, but afterward we want to bring them back to routine," said principal Matti Ziv. The mayor's office gave each school principal NIS 5,000 to treat their kids, and Ziv is planing to take them by train for a day at the Weizmann Institute of Science. "The Trains Authority has promised to let them ride free," she noted. Because of the effects of the war, the Acre school system is going to have to lay out a lot more money on its pupils than usual, and free rides, metaphorically, are absolutely vital to this project. This is a poor city on the periphery, with high unemployment and incidence of welfare. "The city was dead during the war," notes municipal spokeswoman Meirav Zucker. "Acre depends on tourism and there was none. Businesses made no money for a month. We don't have an estimate of the overall financial damage, but it certainly runs into the tens of millions of shekels." Owing to their limited financial resources, an estimated 90% of Acre's residents remained in their homes during the war. "What got us through was private volunteers and charities," says Ben-Shoshan, singling out the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, Karev Foundation, Jewish Agency, British Jewry and wealthier municipalities such as Herzliya for their generosity. After the war began, for instance, some 8,000 local youngsters were bussed out to attractions around the country every day for free. In this school year, private charity will be picking up at least part of the tab for school supplies for all of Acre's elementary school pupils, as well as for junior high and high school students on welfare, said Ben-Shoshan. New school books, which ordinarily cost about NIS 500 per pupil, will be available for NIS 220 to pupils who turn in their books from last year. "And we've asked the Education Ministry to pick up the NIS 220 itself," notes Ben-Shoshan. "We'll see." AT EL-MAHABA the challenges for the new school year go well beyond the financial - although that is certainly one of them. The walls have to be rebuilt, the splintered jungle gym and buckled awning over the sandbox will have to be replaced, along with windows, doors and equipment for art, music and speech therapy, as well as the play doctor's office and kitchen. Much harder, though, will be rehabilitating the 18 handicapped children from the dual trauma of the war and the absence of their familiar school surroundings. "There's been a lot of regression," said Friedman, who, like her co-teacher Ouda, has been in touch with the kids and their parents at least once a week since the war began. "This vacation hasn't done any of them any good," she said. One girl who was relocated to Eilat and shunted from a hotel to an apartment to the home of generous strangers has been "driven to distraction," says Friedman, noting that the girl has regressed in toilet training and speech. A desperation has come into her behavior. "I talked to her and she cried to me, 'I love you so much, I love you so much.' She didn't used to behave like this," said Friedman. A boy in her class was so scared to leave his home that he refused for a week to go with his parents to Ashkelon, but after he got there and found himself being taken to amusement parks, Jerusalem and other exciting places, he refused adamantly to return to Acre. Another boy was frightened that his drawings that had been displayed in class had been destroyed by the rocket, Friedman said. "He said he was afraid of having to go to another school," she said, noting that el-Mahaba has been there for seven years. She remembers rushing to the kindergarten when she heard it had been hit. "It was actually easier when I got here, because not knowing what was happening was worse," said Friedman. Inventorying the damage at the school that morning, being exposed to further rocketing when the streets of Acre were deserted, was "very, very scary," she added. Ouda's family warned her not to go to the kindergarten that July 30, but recalls thinking, "If I have to die, let me die there today." Of the two of them, Ouda is the one with "nerves of steel," said Friedman, while she is the "dramatic one. "That was the first time I ever saw Berlin so shaken up," she adds. A day before the interview, the staffs of Acre's kindergartens held a meeting to discuss plans for the new school year. "I was the last one to speak," said Ouda, "and I just broke down. I've been so caught up with trying to be strong for the children, and for my own children, and it finally all came out yesterday." While el-Mahaba is being repaired, Friedman and Ouda will hold kindergarten classes at a nearby after-school center for handicapped children. "Many of the kids who go there used to be our pupils," noted Friedman. However, the center doesn't have a playground, or small, enclosed rooms that give pupils a feeling of security, and the classes will be held in a high-ceilinged auditorium where the acoustics aren't good and children are likely to find it difficult to understand what's being said. "All this produces anxiety in our kids," says Friedman. One way they plan to return a feeling of confidence to the pupils, said Ouda, is to bring them regularly back to el-Mahaba to watch it being rebuilt and readied for their return. "I have a strong belief in God," said Friedman, "but after the rocket fell on the school, I asked him, 'Where is your judgment? Why us?' And then I reached the conclusion that this was like the story of Job, that God was testing to see if we believed strongly enough in what we're doing here." Standing in the shattered classroom, looking at Ouda, she said, "It's like we told each other when we were here after the rocket hit: We won't allow it to break us, we're going on."