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

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

The pulse and pain of our souls

Asmaa Rafiq Kuheil | 10-03-2021

boy opening door

“My great love for you all is gathered in one hand, but the other hand is reserved for Sharif alone.”

Such is my father’s love for his special, youngest child, a boy with wide brown eyes, a hyperactive six-year-old child who never realizes what sitting quietly means. My little brother Sharif has been diagnosed as a child with learning difficulties, with all the challenges and “rewards” that entails.

I flash back to when I was at university studying psycho-socio linguistics, which tracks language development in human beings. At that time, Sharif’s condition had not yet been diagnosed. Like any passionate learner applying what I had learnt to an actual learning environment, I decided to make Sharif my case study. So many times I was puzzled, however. There was an obvious contradiction between the theory and what Sharif was really like. I suppose I should have guessed, since in the first four years of his childhood, he never uttered a word.

Our life has irrevocably changed due to Sharif’s existence. Having a child with special needs makes a home so different than any other. The door must always be closed with a key. If not, he instantly escapes, walking long distances away from home. Every time he is lost, we are arrested by the possibility that he will never come back. To make matters worse, he was not able to pronounce his name at an early age, doubling the panic of any disappearance. Yet, if asked about his name now, he says it in very clear language. He faithfully does our orders – providing he is enticed by a gift or something he likes. With my mother’s guidance, prayers and doctor’s visits, his language production has gradually improved, though he still reproduces countless sentences without recognizing what they really mean, like a machine linking sentences with specific situations.

Despite the challenges, however, each morning we are awakened by the joy of his singing. Sharif’s routine inside the home is tied to his passion for songs. As long as the electricity is on, he watches the “Toyor El-Janna” (The Birds of Heaven) TV channel. He has a talent for the rhythms of each song and quickly commits them to memory. Our home is filled with song as if occupied by one of heaven’s birds. Once the electricity is cut, Sharif cries inconsolably for almost an hour, standing at the window meditating on things, we know not what.

Sharif is overwhelmingly energetic and loves going outdoors to the large amusement park nearby, to which my mother accompanies him three times a week. He runs and plays all types of games, never fearing anything. My mother always struggles with him when the time clocks to leave. He cries so hard and runs so fast escaping from her, hating to be torn from the things he loves. Whenever he is outdoors, he clings to the moment with naiveté and wonder, never wanting to let go.

Struggles during COVID curfew

Since COVID-19, things have been tough on Sharif though he understands little. The pandemic has stripped our lives and there aren’t any park visits anymore. Still, my father, a 51-year-old man with a heart of gold, plays football with Sharif in the park he built for him in our large living room. The sound of Sharif’s laughter eases my heart, helping me forget all the stress that this curfew has generated. Sharif also has a bicycle, riding it inside the home and discharging his excessive energy, cheerful as a kite bobbing in the breeze. During these times, whenever I hear my father playing with my sibling, I’m detached from the misery of the online world and my mind fills with the pleasure of William Wordsworth’s daffodils as if the house is full of them, planted by the most caring farmer.

As we sit all together inside during COVID-19, Sharif insists on going to the sea. He is crazy about swimming there. At times, all my siblings including myself have exploited his strong desire to go to the sea. Each one of us has said: “I will take you to the sea but bring me something first” as a kind of stimulus for Sharif. He instantly goes and brings the request no matter how difficult, driven as he is by his sparkling blue wish. I hate our deception, and this cursed curfew which prevents me from making his dream come true. I am now troubled by my white lies, falsely promising to fulfill a young child’s ultimate hope of going to the sea, when in fact my brother has just been chasing a mirage. Sharif, like others with his condition, is a boy of few words, but each word he speaks is pure honesty, free of dissembling.

Where is Sharif?!?

It was 6 p.m. Nobody was allowed outside due to the curfew, yet Sharif had disappeared again. It seemed that one of my siblings had forgotten to close the door. My mother ran into the street, her heart dictating her state of mind, shedding tears. My father entered the house and asked expectantly, “Where is Sharif?” longing to see him as usual. I wept, “He has disappeared, father.”

My father, who is known for his practical responses, instantly took a taxi looking for him in all the expected places, most certainly the sea. My parents and brothers Mohammed, Abdullah, and Hamza all searched. Mohammed also informed the police while we, the four sisters, simply waited for news, whether of his death or his divine arrival. At 8:30 p.m., my father returned home, thundering in desperation: “It is the sixth time that Sharif has gotten lost. Allah has warned us many times and maybe this time Sharif will come back in a coffin, if at all. Tell your sisters to save their tears for the coming hours, for the news of their brother’s death.”

I did not reply but cried harder than before. My mother returned with no promising news. By 9:30 p.m., three hours had passed and nothing heard. Then Mohammed’s mobile rang! Police officers had found a boy by the sea, a boy who took his clothes off as he was swimming, escaping from three feral dogs stalking their prey. The police rescued him, gave him clothes, and asked him his name. “Sharif Rafiq Kuheil,” he stammered, so they knew that he was ours. Sharif had run almost three kilometers from our neighborhood, a distance that we never expected him to reach. When Sharif arrived back home that night, it is true to say Wordsworth’s daffodils bloomed in every heart.

A boy with an amazing future

A child with learning difficulties or not, I feel delighted that Sharif is my brother. What he is suffering now is just a kind of test for my parents, since the remainder of their other eight children have always excelled at school and university. What a tough test, nevertheless! Despite the insensitive comments that we hear, my mother holds to a strong belief that Sharif will emerge from his challenges into an amazing future, and so do I. After all, Sharif has a special mind and may turn his learning differences, seen at first as weaknesses, into strengths, like Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and other remarkable people who did before him.

The ultimate truth is that in spite of Sharif’s chaotic energy injecting our days with the high drama of Shakespeare and the tension of a spy thriller, life without him would undoubtedly be hollow. He is the pulse and pain of our souls.


Posted: March 9, 2021

Mentor: Bridget Smith

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