East Jerusalem children offered second chance
By Chris Shearer
Not far from the Damascus Gate, tucked away in one of the many bustling alleyways that make up the labyrinth of East Jerusalem’s Old City, is a stonework building with two arched blue doors. Among all the history that courses through this city, both ancient and living, this building seems unexceptional. But here in the Spafford Children’s Center, remarkable things are happening. Children who have suffered through conflict, through scarcity, through fear and insecurity, children who have been left behind, are gaining a new lease on life.
Dr Jantien Dajani first came here in 1968 as a new medical graduate from Holland, when the centre was still a 60-bed children’s hospital. She remembers in those early days that hygiene, nutrition and preventative healthcare were the biggest issues for children, but that began to change in late 1980s with the outbreak of the first Intifada – the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
“All of a sudden the clinics were filled with children with psychosomatic complaints like headaches, bedwetting, tummy aches, where you can’t find any organic reason for it,” she says.
“So that’s when we decided to get also a psychologist to start evaluating children and a social worker for home visits.”
On top of this, she remembers, the Intifada meant that schools were closed for more than a year in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. When they reopened “a new generation was waiting and the old generation hadn’t learned anything”.
“So it was really, in the educational field, a terrible mess. We started doing remedial teaching for the first time.”
Today the Spafford Children’s Center continues to meet the needs of local families through remedial education, testing early childhood development, psychological counselling, speech and play therapy, sports, folk dancing, art and music classes, and even summer camps – all designed to enrich Palestinian children’s restricted lives.
CEO of the centre, Shahd Souri, says they work with around 600 children each year aged between four and 12. They target citizens in the Old City, but also have a number coming from the areas surrounding East Jerusalem and even some coming from beyond the Israeli-West Bank Barrier. They all have some form of special need, displaying a range of emotional disorders, developmental, cognitive or fine motor delays, and other issues.
“I guess 80 per cent are traumatised in different ways,” Mrs Souri says. “Children are living in vulnerable, miserable conditions in the Old City with lack of space, shortage[s] of houses and classrooms … because of different restrictions from the municipal or Israeli Government, and they are exposed to different acts from the Israeli soldiers or settlers who are living in the Old City.”
Spafford Children's Center CEO Shahd Souri
She says that many children – mostly boys – are regularly stopped by Israeli security forces on the way to school to have their backpacks checked. Over time, their stress can begin to manifest in ways that hinder their development.
“They are so nervous, they can’t play, they can’t release [or] feel their feelings freely like any other child over the world,” she says.
“So we are working with them. We have space all over the centre, they can run, they can play, they can express their feelings freely.”
Children participating in a remedial English class at the Spafford Children's Center
As important as play is, remedial education and therapy takes centre stage. Students are given extra help in mathematics, Arabic and English, with class numbers kept at around one to four students, depending on their individual needs. These courses are combined with speech and occupational therapy, rounding out what the centre calls “a comprehensive approach to the child’s needs”.
Australia’s own Anglican Overseas Aid (AOA) has been supporting the centre’s speech therapy program since 2009 through its strategic grant program, funded entirely through donations from the Australian public. The grant helps pay the salary of a qualified speech therapist as well as some of the upkeep for the centre.
Dr Dajani explains that the speech therapy program mainly works around articulation problems, lack of vocabulary, stammering and children who are too shy to speak at all. It’s intensive, she says, but the results are “on the whole good”.
“We get [calls] from teachers and headmasters saying, ‘We thought this child should fail his class this year, but since he’s come to you he’s doing much better, so we’ll give him another chance for a year’. That’s the gratifying aspect of our work.”
Church and Community Engagement Coordinator at AOA Nils Von Kalm, who visited the centre last year, says it’s a privilege to be partnered with it.
“I distinctly remember the concern shown by the workers there when they were providing speech therapy for children traumatised by the current conflict,” he says.
“They dedicate their lives to provide hope and help for families experiencing suffering.”
Dr Dajani says this commitment to caring is what makes the real difference in the work the centre does.
“The teachers here are all taught, and must have, a love for children. Otherwise it doesn’t work,” she says.
“Some of the children start hating school because they always feel low and unappreciated and dumb. But here they bloom up because everyone is praising them, everyone is nice to them. That makes the difference.
“Once they start feeling that they can do things that they never could, they start also doing well in school because their self-esteem goes up and they feel happier.”
Despite the good work done by the centre, its future is not guaranteed. Over the years there have been many legislative pressures put on its operation, and numerous attempts by individuals and the Israeli Government to buy the historically-significant and strategically-placed building. International support is the only thing keeping the centre afloat.
“We have to always balance on what’s available,” Dr Dajani says. “With the world everywhere in a mess, especially here, and we are all fishing in the same pond … it is a problem.”
You can donate to the Spafford Children’s Centre by visiting Anglican Overseas Aid at www.anglicanoverseasaid.org.au