Israeli Arab Transforms Challenge into Strength for Herself and Her Community

December 26, 2012


“As a child I couldn’t imagine coming to terms with my disability,” says Hanaa, 32, who was born congenitally blind, the youngest of six children in an Israeli Arab family with limited means. “But once I did, I realized I could derive motivation from it and go far.”

“Now I use the multilayered challenges of being Arab, a woman, and having a disability to derive strength and drive. I love being a leader in my community and finding ways to be more effective in helping others with disabilities.”

Hanaa is the coordinator of the Supportive Community in her region and the Director of the Center for Independent Living (CIL) at the Al Manal Organization in Sakhnin, an Arab-Israeli town in northern Israel. Based on the model developed by JDC, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and the Government of Israel through Israel Unlimited, the Center she heads up provides a variety of services for adults with disabilities, including peer counseling, guidance for using assistive devices, job skills classes, and social activities for local youth and the larger community.

The CIL helps to empower over 400 adults with disabilities in this densely populated, primarily agrarian Arab community—an area where most people subsist on very low incomes or live below the poverty line and often lack the education or cultural understanding of the challenges people with disabilities face day to day.

“Our biggest issue is making people in the community see the person, not the disability, when they look at someone with a certain limitation,” Hanaa explains. That’s why her primary objectives are to challenge approaches and attitudes about people with disabilities in society; assist with integration into the job market; disseminate information about rights; and develop social activities accessible to people with disabilities.

Hanaa observes that there is a revolution under way in her community, as people with disabilities are beginning to finally leave their homes, socialize visibly in the public sphere, and speak about their experiences, motivating one another at every step. She is particularly proud of some of the center’s successes in advancing the position of women with disabilities.

She points to Maysaa, a blind 18-year-old woman who loves music. Maysaa came to the Center to learn to play the Ut, but then found out about the women’s health project, which offers sexual and health education. Prior to coming here, Maysaa had only earned her high school diploma; now, she’s set her sights much higher. “I’m looking forward to studying medicine,” she proudly tells Hanaa.

Hanaa’s own story is uniquely inspiring. Since her older brother is also blind, she was raised with a complicated set of expectations as a blind Arab girl. “I was encouraged and pressured from a young age to find abilities to compensate for my disability. I needed to overcome limitations and environmental barriers stemming from negative attitudes and perceptions towards people like me.”

She attended a Catholic boarding school in Nazareth, first with other children with special needs and after age 10 integrated into regular classes. Once she decided to study education and sociology at Haifa University, she got her first opportunity to live independently, grow her social circle, and learn firsthand from successful Arab women.

After volunteering in a wide variety of organizations, Hanaa landed her first job with JDC’s Supportive Community program. “If it weren’t for the JDC, I doubt I would have been able to find work; it’s a really unique organization that supports our community and values that we run our own programs.”

“It was exemplary for people with disabilities to see me working. I was stubborn, set on moving forward. I’d learned that by thinking differently I could go very far!” At the same time, she furthered her academic studies—culminating in her Masters degree in Gerontology.

“I became more confident in my ability to make changes in society, which is apparent in my work today. As I become aware of the needs in the community around me, I find the ability to assist, to change, to help individuals, families, and the community.”

The CIL Hanaa directs serves a diverse population. Some people are born disabled, while others develop disabilities later in life; most don’t attend school, and few finish high school. (In many cases parents underestimate their disabled children’s abilities and they themselves are either shy, ashamed of their disability, or lack confidence to excel.) Women are in a particularly tough situation because they cannot get married in their community—and that makes them a particularly important focus for Hanaa.

Hanaa’s contagious positivity fuels many of the success stories, including many cases where her encouragement inspires people with disabilities to leave their homes for the first time. “I don’t consider myself to be a disabled woman. I believe I have a role to fulfill in life,” she explains. “We don’t have to let our disabilities lead us. We have to take them head on and move beyond them.”

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