The fact that she was four and blind did not save Ulfat or her 74 classmates from the almost daily Israeli shelling in Al Bireh.
The National School for the Blind in Al Bireh, along with a number of homes, were hit by tanks and automatic machine guns at Psagot settlement on Mount Tawil, which is directly across from the school. The shelling, which occurred on February 20, lasted over three hours. Area residents, many of them children, were terrorized.
It has been eight days since the shelling. Ulfat, the youngest of the school’s pupils, does not leave her caretaker’s lap. She starts to cry hysterically whenever anyone goes near the windows. Iz Eddin, six months her senior, is busy making rockets and tanks from clay, which he keeps safely in his pockets.
Ulfat does not take to me easily. She uses her hands for eyes to feel my face. She has been blind since birth. Slowly, she begins to open up. “When they fired the shell, I jumped out of bed. I started to cry and shake behind the door until Miss Suheir came and took us out of the room,” Ulfat describes, practically glued to her teacher.
“We went beneath the stairwell barefoot,” she continues, hiding her face with her hands. I wasn’t sure if her gesture was out of shyness or if she was just trying to shove away the image in her mind. “Iz Eddin was also under the stairwell barefoot,” she adds, trying to divert the attention from herself.
“But I didn’t cry,” Iz Eddin interrupts in self-defense. “I want to make a bomb and throw it at the Jews so they won’t shell our school again,” he says defiantly.
“The good thing is that Iz Eddin didn’t wake up from the sound of the shelling,” says Suheir. The two children were under her care during the shelling. “He only woke up when I picked him up and took him downstairs.”
Iz Eddin almost lost his life that night. “Only moments after I moved him from his bed, but before we even left the room, a bullet penetrated Iz Eddin’s bed and settled there. If it weren’t for the mercy of God, that bullet might now have been in Iz Eddin’s body,” Suheir says.
Iz Eddin and Ulfat are both from Hebron. Because of the security closure imposed on Palestinian cities, their parents have not been able to come and make sure their children are all right. “Iz Eddin’s father called me from Beit Ummar, near Hebron. He was crying on the phone,” says Suheir compassionately. “He had seen the incident reported on television. When he heard about the bullet that had settled in his son’s bed, he almost lost his mind. He was thanking me and crying. When he spoke to his son he was crying, as well. Everyone in the room cried that day.”
Ulfat and Iz Eddin’s school is the only one of its kind in the West Bank. The school hosts students from ages four to sixteen. Many of the students come from remote villages, in addition to Ramallah City.
Ulfat’s and Iz Eddin’s stories are hardly the only ones. There are 75 stories for the 75 children in the school that day. Eight-year-old Samia lives in Beituniya, west of Ramallah. Because her home is so close to the school, she is not one of its boarders.
“Everywhere I go, there is shelling,” Samia says innocently, as if she herself is responsible. “Two days before the school was shelled, the Israelis shelled our house in Beituniya. So my father moved us all to our grandfather’s house, which is not very far from ours. He said it was safer. That night they shelled my grandfather’s house, too. So my father decided to enroll me as a boarder in the school because that would be the safest place for me. My first night here, they shelled the school as well. Where am I supposed to go now?”
The school’s principal, Suha Al Afouna, also boards with the pupils in the school’s dormitory. She spoke of the psychological terror left in the children from that night. “You cannot even imagine the situation we had to face with these children. They hear the gunshots and can smell its residue. Only that night did they truly feel their handicap and the realization that they were different from children of the same age. When we were under the stairwell, I heard more than one child talking to the supervisors as if he was apologizing for his handicap – as if only he could see then the supervisors would not have had to put their own lives in danger to move them.”
Sixteen-year-old Jihan is proof of this feeling of helplessness. According to her teachers she is a bright and unique student. She speaks English fluently and her dream is to become an English teacher. “I am not even sure that I can fulfill this dream anymore,” Jihan says, first trying to evade my question.
“The night of the shelling, I stood in the middle of the room, totally incapable of moving or doing anything. Every time I moved I would run into another girl or piece of furniture and fall on the floor.”
“In the end I just waited for someone who sees to show me the way. That is when I felt how helpless I am. I started thinking about the future that I had planned for myself. A million doubts started forming in my head. Do you think someone like me can leave this school and face society without someone’s help? I could not even save myself and leave a room I have lived in for 11 years.”
Listening to Jihan, I too was helpless. I could not think of anything to say, other than words of consolation that she might reject as pity. But she cut me off with more of her thoughts. “I used to think I could be an English teacher here in the school. But I changed my mind. I don’t think I will be of any use to blind students in a situation like the shelling the other night. They will need a sighted teacher who can show them where to go, not a teacher who needs someone’s help.”
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