Introduction

Nureddin is bringing visually impaired students to participate as equals in public school classrooms for the first time across the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories). In this way, he is driving up the level of empathy in these societies, and thus, better equipping them to embrace difference of all kinds.

In an environment where difference is often highlighted and quickly marginalized, Nureddin has created a model school of integration where visually impaired and sighted children learn side by side, and are taught by instructors who are similarly both visually impaired and sighted. He is now using the academic success that has been achieved across the student body – the school is indeed one of the highest ranking in the country – to embed the key principles of the school into the country’s larger education system. With a school system better equipped to welcome and collaborate in the success of the visually impaired, families are able to shed the shame and sense of burden that previously dominated their relationship with these often discarded children, and the visually impaired themselves are able to shed a pattern of thinking imposed by the larger community that made it difficult to generate any significant self-confidence. More generally, Nureddin is demonstrating that with the right enabling environment, the visually impaired can succeed and in fact, contribute to the group – lessons that can be taken beyond classrooms and into the workplace and the general social consciousness.

 

Indeed, from the very beginning Nureddin has been focused on the larger implications of addressing the needs of the visually impaired. He incorporated students and teachers with various other disabilities into his school, for example,to extend the achieved tolerance effect to as many previously rejected groups as possible.

Disabled children are often isolated from society and denied social interactions, even with their families. Up to 95 percent of disabled school aged children and youth have been excluded from educational systems within the Middle East and North Africa. Of those that do make it to school, most are placed in the few educational institutions specifically created for persons with a disability, which are so specialized that they further isolate disabled students from their able-bodied peers and the larger community. Further, the education provided in those institutions has been found to be severely deficient. The few regular schools that admit the blind and disabled end up virtually ignoring this group, leaving it up to parents to adopt the curriculum to the needs of their children. Overall, the administrative and teaching staff across the educational system in the Levant are wholly lacking in the training and infrastructure to provide an effective education. And with this reality, 93 percent suffer from marginalization and poverty resulting from unemployment.

Nureddin immediately knew it would be important to have children grow up side by side and get to a point where no one thinks twice if a classmate uses a large print textbook or pulls out an audio recorder in class, just as no one associates a shorter child’s choosing to sit at the front of the class with possessing an inferior mind. To accomplish this at Siraj Al Quds School, the primary school he founded in 2007, Nureddin enlisted a series of strategies. First, Nureddin recognized that what happens outside the classroom is as pivotal as what happens inside the classroom. He organized art, sporting, and other recreational activities where all children could play together, often for the first time in their lives. He went into the communities in which the children lived and held various talent shows where all students could display their respective skills, as well as, more general social events where they could casually mingle. Disabled children realized that they could do something themselves; able-bodied children saw that sometimes they were better at certain things, and sometimes they were not, just like differences among their own brothers and sisters. Overall, families starting looking at their children through the lens of their achievements rather than their disability and began sending requests to Nureddin to hold more events. This led to the first summer camp for both visually impaired and sighted children.

 

Nureddin builds on this awakened sense of tolerance and respect established outside of the classroom inside the school’s halls. There is never any explicit conversation about visual impairment, but rather, Nureddin trains teachers to take a holistic appraisal of the students, considering the full range of challenges any given child may be facing. This holistic approach has seen able-bodied children receive extra lessons or shorter sessions, for example, to accommodate different degrees of learning disabilities previously undiagnosed. Similarly, visually impaired children receive braille textbooks and physically impaired students may sit at a differently shaped desk. In either case, the adjustment is done in a way that seems no different from a left-handed student using a different foot than most to kick the ball during the school’s soccer games, or a taller student needing a larger sized costume than most during the school play.

 

To get a school like this started in the first place, Nureddin knew he would have to employ innovative strategies. He started it as a regular school for only able-bodied students, initially attracting students with discounted tuition fees and the provision of transportation. Then, once the holistic approach employed by teachers helped ensure strong academic performance of students, the next year he opened enrolment to students with disabilities, never changing the title of the school or pointing out the difference in the newly enrolled children. Parents, who were excited about their children’s performance in year one, and who got exposure to the differently abled children in year two through the various extracurricular events, continued their high support of the school. In fact, Siraj Al Quds School has become one of the more highly sought after primary schools in Palestine.

 

After a few years of high academic performance across the student body, Nureddin has distilled the key principles of his school into a step-by-step guide and approached the Ministry of Education in Palestine to consider his approach to education for the visually impaired and larger disabled community. With financing from the European Union, the Ministry of Education has embarked on shifting one third of its schools to reflect Nureddin’s Siraj Al Quds School. This will include both the technical upgrades to the school’s facilities as well as the various teaching/ learning aids Nureddin has developed along the way, including a brail curriculum and the first audio curriculums in Arabic. It will also feature the critical community cultivation aspect.

 

Nureddin is currently working to expand this approach of integrative education across the Levant, and also lobby for more inclusion of the “differently-abled” in the workplace, a task he deems will be significantly aided by the penetration of his approach in the schools.

Nureddin was born in Jerusalem, Palestine as a visually impaired child and completely lost his eyesight by the time he entered primary school. Moving from school to school, he insisted to continue his path of education despite many schools denying him admission and facing a high degree of stigma and neglect from his peers and teachers. After succeeding to graduate from high school and enrolling in university, the first Intifada began and all universities were closed down for two years. Nureddin did not want to delay his education, nor did it make sense to him to wait around to reenter a highly discriminatory university system – Nureddin recalls many unsuccessful attempts to get permission to seek services to put him on equal footing with his classmates, like having an examiner read the tests to him and record his answers, andusing a device to record lectures since he could not takes. So despite his parent’s resistance and fear that he would not be able to live alone as a visually impaired person abroad, Nureddin sought scholarships and moved to Turkey to pursue his college education.

 

Upon returning to Palestine with a Bachelor’s degree, he was still unable to find reasonable employment options. He settled for a very low salary of $70 per month compared to the average salary of $1750 for sighted college graduates. After years of receiving such a discriminatory salary despite the computer skills and educational standard that Nureddin had, he realized he had to take matters into his own hands to change his own reality and prevent others from going through the same experience.

 

After recognizing that the existing organizations for the disabled harbored as many debilitating views as the general public, Nureddin put up with the heightened security and countless checkpoints to travel across Palestine to change the perception of the visually impaired. Remembering the few times he received respect in his former job was when he displayed his sharp computer skills, Nureddin began recruiting the visually impaired in the various communities he visited to showcase some of their abilities through various street performances. From here, Nureddin refined his thinking and decided to use the schools to systematize the opportunity for communities, especially children, to increase their empathy toward all individuals.