Saturday, November 18, 2017

Orphanage battles to help kids in the face of trauma


By PM collaborators - November 07, 2016
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Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Health Care] [youth]

At first glance, Jeel El-Amal looks like a normal school. It is on a typically dusty road near the town of El-Eizariya. There is a small shop opposite, and some olive trees on the hill below. But Jeel El-Amal - meaning 'The Generation of Hope’ in English - is not a typical institution.
About 25% of Jeel El-Amal’s 320 students are orphans. Others are victims of domestic abuse. They live on-site in bright dorm rooms overlooking the courtyard. But they are encouraged to mix with the other kids, from more stable backgrounds, who are day students at a school linked to the orphanage. As Rana Faraon, Jeel El-Amal’s administrator puts it, “we make new children.”  
Creating this sense of normalcy is important. “Many of these children have spent time on the streets, they want to be violent,” said Faraon. Many of the orphans come from the Shu’fat refugee camp, a place where shootings, and arrests by Israel, are common.  “Only when the children find people who help them will they begin to cooperate,” she added.
Marouf is a typical case. The boy had an abusive family, and ran away from home. When he arrived at Jeel El-Amal, he would cower in front of any adult. But when he sees Jbara Mahmoud, a member of staff, he runs to embrace him. “We are like brothers here,” smiled Mahmoud.
Mahmoud has particular reasons to be proud. He grew up an orphan at Jeel El-Amal. As he wanders the courtyard, children rush up and hug at his legs. “We are like a family here,” he said. Staff often stay late to help the children with their problems. Official paperwork is sometimes delayed so vulnerable children like Marouf can get help quickly.
This dedication is sorely needed. 51% of Palestinian children have been subjected to physical abuse by family members.
Moreover, decent psychological treatment for children is hard to come by. Few clinics exist. And even where treatment is available, it is sometimes controversial. At the Bethlehem psychiatric hospital, for example, doctors over-medicate patients rather than offer therapy. For its part, moreover, the Bethlehem hospital does not have a specific ward for children.
Jeel El-Amal’s delicate style is therefore unusual. Above all, Mahmoud and his colleagues try to give vulnerable children like Marouf normal lives. The orphans are taken on trips, for example to a waterpark in Nablus. “So they can do what every other child does,” explained Mahmoud.
Links to other institutions, like the Edward Said Conservatory, also mean that the orphans can go on and have successful careers - and not end up back on the street. “We give them a safe space to live and develop,” Mahmoud said.
But even if Jeel El-Amal manages to provide a sense of belonging to boys like Marouf, the Israeli occupation makes their work a struggle. Children in East Jerusalem, who used to come to Jeel El-Amal for help, are now stuck on the wrong side of the Israeli separation wall.
This is especially frustrating because people with mental health difficulties are often stigmatised by their own families and communities. This stigma means that children are often reluctant to open up about their problems.  “A child seems to be with you [in the classroom], but he is actually in his own head,” explained Faraon.
Again, Jeel El-Amal combat these difficulties by increasing children's confidence in thoughtful ways. Children are encouraged to speak their minds, for example when organising an IT programming project together. Special classes are arranged for the most vulnerable children to discuss their experiences.
Moreover, practitioners from other countries are invited to train teachers in how to cope with difficult children. Staff are taught to look out for behaviour that might signal psychological trauma. Given that many mental health professionals in Palestine are undertrained, this assistance is critical.
But despite the success of Jeel El-Amal from a pastoral perspective, other obstacles remain. Recent tensions in the West Bank have meant that Israel is limiting foreign donations to the orphanage.
“They think the money is for terrorists,” Faraon said. Jeel El-Amal receives some of its funding from World Vision, which recently came in the line of fire when one of its Gaza-based employees was accused by Israel of embezzling funds for Hamas, allegations the charity disputed.
Given these difficulties, Faraon’s worries about “the future” of Jeel El-Amal are unsurprising. But Mahmoud is confident that Jeel El-Amal can keep helping vulnerable young children with getting a strong start in life. “I hope to see a good society in the future,” he said. “To do this, we must start with our children.”

Mahmoud is certain that with enough dedication, he and his colleagues can make a difference. “If we dream for our children, we can make it true.”

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