Bethlehem’s Ephpheta Institute

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Israh Ziada, 14, sits on the tan sofa, her wavy hair wrapped in a loose bun atop her head, a black choker necklace around her neck, her brown eyes on the speaker’s mouth.

Israh has been a student at the Ephpheta Paul VI Pontifical Institute for the deaf in Bethlehem since she was 3. She was born deaf and wears a hearing aid, can lip read, is able to speak, loves her Arabic and gym classes, writes prolific poetry and dreams of becoming a teacher or a nurse. She also needs insulin for her diabetes.

Israh lives with three brothers, a sister and parents — neither of whom work — in a village outside of Bethlehem. Each day, Israh and her 5-year-old sister, Shahed, who is also deaf, take a taxi to school. The institute cannot arrange a school bus for the students because of all the Israeli checkpoints through which it would have to pass.

The family’s electricity has been threatened to be shut off, and they cannot afford to buy the kind of food Israh should be eating as a diabetic. Her mother borrows money from neighbors to pay for her daughter’s transportation to the school.

Israh and Shahed are among the 43 students whose fees — $500 per year and an additional $1,000 per girl for hearing aids — are waived by the school.

The other 100 students — 22 of whom live at the school — pay only partial tuition, noted the school director, Sister Pierra, a member of the Sisters of St. Dorothy.

Ephpheta, funded by the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, is the only school in the Middle East that teaches lip reading, but because of lack of space, it only has classes until the 10th grade. After that, the students are either integrated — some more successfully than others — into a regular school or, in many cases, remain at home. Because they must complete the final two, and most crucial, years of high school in a framework that does not adjust itself to their disability, most are unable to complete the standardized tests required to enter university.

Suda Ziada, Israh’s mother, said the family did not realize she was deaf until she was 3.

“When Shahed was born and we realized she, too, was deaf, it was very hard to accept,” said Ziada, who wears a traditional robe and a hijab to cover her hair.

She said at first she thought they would have to take her eldest daughter out of the school to be able to afford to send Shahed. The fact that the fees were waived for both girls eased her worries considerably and is allowing both girls to receive an education, she added.

This Christmas season, through a sponsorship program organized by the Pontifical Mission, Israh received a gift that has helped pay her mounting medical bills. Foreign sponsors have also “adopted” 29 other students from the school.

The Ziada family is among the tens of thousands Palestinian families who yearly receive aid in various forms through Catholic aid organizations, said Tony Khashram, vice president of the Jerusalem St. Vincent de Paul Society and chairman of the Catholic coordinating aid committee.

He noted that of about 50,000 Christian Palestinians living in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, some 10,000 people receive various forms of assistance yearly from Catholic aid organizations such as the Pontifical Mission, Catholic Relief Services, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Caritas and St. Vincent de Paul.

This aid is vital in helping Palestinians — both Christians and Muslims — manage their lives with dignity, said Khashram.

“It is very important,” he said. “Every aid agency has its role, and it all adds up. We are not talking about an ideal situation, but at least it is helping.”

While some organizations provide aid mainly for projects focusing on housing, schooling and employment, others help Palestinian families on an individual basis for such incidentals as paying utility bills, dental and medical costs, school fees and buying eyeglasses.

The number of requests that the Jerusalem St. Vincent de Paul Society has received has remained relatively the same this year, but the amount of donations it received has decreased drastically as donors around the world continue feeling the crunch of the economic crisis, said Khashram.

As Christmas approaches, he said, families and individuals have been asking for funds to buy food and clothing for the holiday.

He said at least 350 families have also asked for help to pay the end-of-the-year school fees, which must be paid before their children are permitted to take the final exams, but it will be impossible to help them all.

Also at this season many institutions such as kindergartens, schools and homes for the elderly turn to the aid agencies for help to fund their modest Christmas parties, said Sami El-Yousef, Jerusalem regional director of the Pontifical Mission.

“The problem is we get lots of requests and we have limited funding. We try to stretch (the funds) as much as possible,” said El-Yousef.

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