Struggling on the Strip

The small patch of land known as the Gaza Strip is home to more than a million people. For most, life is a struggle.

text by Michele Chabin
photographs by Miriam Sushman

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At 18 months, Mohsen Mustaha contracted meningitis and suddenly stopped speaking. Drawing on their meager resources, his parents took Mohsen from Gaza to nearby Egypt for a medical evaluation. The diagnosis: Severe hearing loss and possible brain damage.

Since there were no schools for the deaf in Gaza at the time, the Mustahas sent Mohsen to a regular elementary school. Living in a world of silence, he was unable to communicate or understand the lessons. After three or four years of academic failure and utter social isolation, he was asked to leave and was subsequently sent to a facility for the mentally handicapped.

It was not until the age of 12 that Mohsen found the help he so desperately needed. In 1992, six Gaza women founded the Atfaluna Society for the Deaf, the first school and training center for the hearing impaired in Gaza. Much of the funding for the complex – which can accommodate only a small percentage of the 20,000 hearing-impaired children and adults in the area – comes from Christian organizations.

Mohsen’s parents brought him to Atfaluna and begged for their son’s admission.

“Our hearts really wept for him,” recalled Geraldine Shawa, the president of the society. “He had received no real education and he couldn’t read or write. We had just opened our doors and had programs only for kindergartners and those in first grade. It was a dilemma.”

“We couldn’t turn him away,” said Shawa, a Chicago native who has lived in Gaza for 30 years. “We couldn’t make up for all the years of neglect, but we taught him what we could and helped him learn a trade.”

“Before coming to Atfaluna I couldn’t read or write, use sign language or read lips,” said Mohsen, now 19 and an expert in molding hearing aids. Interviewed in the society’s air-conditioned, state-of-the-art hearing-aid laboratory, with Shawa interpreting his rapid hand signals, the self-possessed young man admitted, “learning these things at such a late age was very difficult. Math was especially hard.”

So hard that Mohsen dropped out of school temporarily to work as a manual laborer. “I begged my father to bring me back to school,” he stated. “This is a much better life. Working here, in a respected profession that I enjoy, I feel alive.”

Mohsen might never have received an education were it not for the assistance provided to Atfaluna by Christian organizations, including CNEWA’s operating agency for the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.

Although the population of Gaza is almost exclusively Muslim, Christians around the world have opened their hearts to the Strip’s impoverished residents. Christian-sponsored projects and programs are actively improving the lives of numerous people living on the edge of hopelessness.

Many factors contribute to the sense of despair in Gaza, which Israel captured from Egypt in 1967. Although the Oslo Peace Accords granted civil control of Palestinian areas to the Palestinian Authority, Israel is still in charge of overall security and decides who can enter and leave the area.

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