Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Walking with closed eyes open

Marah Herzallah | 05-07-2021

Ameera (in gray scarf) with colleagues. Photo credit: Sharek Youth Forum

Tip, tap, tip tap. Gentle, firm, steady.

Ameera Abuarqoub wanders confidently in the narrow, cobbled alleys of Birzeit’s old town, relying on her white cane. She taps her loyal guide, right, left, right, discovering the surface of the ancient, preserved passages. She moves much in the same way that her creative mind draws on its own images and her long skilful fingers scan elegantly over her braille university books. As we meander through the streets, the scents of wild thyme and sage sneak up to our noses. The aroma of homegrown mint warms our hearts and reminds us of the wrinkly hands of Palestinian grandmothers as they prepare tea for family gatherings on cold winter evenings.

Ameera steps into a café, lowering her head under the arch at the entrance and climbing the staircase with colorful flowerpots and pottery jars hanging on the façade to her right and multi-colored rope lights wrapped around the railing to her left. I notice her move her hands over the mosaic table to touch the flowers. She sips her hot, sweet mint tea. People soon surround her. “Ameera, Ameera,” they cajole. “Please sing for us.” I watch my friend give a big, warm smile, stand up and sing, her haunting voice echoing in the room.

Opening up the world to the sighted and the closed-eyes

I have known Ameera for four years and her determination and ability to inspire others has never failed to impress me. I admire her original way of showing us what it feels like to be unseeing. Once, she made the whole student community put themselves in her shoes through her initiative, “walk while your eyes are closed,” inviting students to walk blindfolded. Many of us began to understand that what was normal and easy for us was challenging for those with closed eyes.

Ameera also challenged her sightless friends to go out, enjoy the vivid student life at campus, and not confine themselves, afraid, to a single room. She struggled to open up the small world of her closed-eyed colleagues, encouraging them to explore the bigger world outside the stereotypical frames that imprison them. She felt a big step had been taken when, with her motivation, they slowly but steadily went out of their small comfort zones to actively engage with the wider world.

The Helen Keller school for the Blind in Jerusalem was where Ameera learned the ABCs of embracing her uniqueness. It was there that her first tiny steps of independence were taken through the white cane. It made her ready to go and explore the world. It made her curious to learn more and to be part of that bigger world. To belong. But perversely, that white cane that brought her that bit of independence also defined her to the rest of her community, and she wanted to break those barriers down.

She can still remember that very first time when she left the confines of her primary school to go to a mainstream middle school. She was both scared and excited. She could feel her heart beating loudly as she nervously clutched her mum’s hand, fearing to let go and encounter her new challenge alone. How would her new classmates treat to her? Would they understand what it was like to be nonsighted? She was happy when they took turns taking notes for her and making recordings for her to take home. Yet, at times, she felt she was a heavy burden to the others, such as when she head a classmate ask another student to take her somewhere, as if weren’t standing right there but was just an inanimate object like a shopping bag or a chocolate bar. She remembers another time when a thoughtless student refused to write down extra notes to help her catch up with the lessons.

Each “ooff” reminded her of how different she was. At those difficult moments, she came to realize that people around her were cautious or sometimes mean because they did not understand what it’s like to be blind. She wanted to make her blindness understood rather than pitied. It was not enough to just accept her blindness; she viewed a bigger role for herself.

Ameera is an active participant in public life.

Integrating people with special needs into society

Ameera’s passion to create a more inclusive world inspired her to launch her own entrepreneurial project, which led her to participate in the Al-Jabal Incubator. Her creation of Indimaj, which means integration, was at the heart of Ameera’s dream— establishing a Palestinian foundation that aims at integrating people with special needs into Palestinian society.

A focus of Indimaj is helping children understand how they should treat people with special needs and to empathize with them. Her tenacity and vision led her to work with a team to create children’s audio and braille books, empowering those children to be fully active in the community. Indimaj also provides training programs so that youths with special needs obtain employable skills.

Through a window, I watch Ameera as she gets off a bus. Confident. Assured. Tip tap, she gingerly guides her white cane, navigating her way through the crowded street in Ramallah. She makes her way alongside people leading their lives with open eyes, yet rarely appreciating its beauty as she does with her closed eyes.

Tip tap, left, tip tap, right….

Posted: July 6, 2021

Mentor: Mona Al Ghussein

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