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Lebanese school empowers children with hearing impairment

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Lebanese school empowers children with hearing impairment

Specialized academic institute gives local and Syrian refugee pupils with hearing impairment a chance to fulfil their promise.

2 December 2016
Six-year-old Syrian refugee Mohammed responds to questions in a classroom at the Father Andeweg Institute for the Deaf in Beirut, Lebanon.

HAZMIEH, Lebanon – Born deaf and living as a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, eight-year-old Mohammed has faced more hurdles than most during his short lifetime. But thanks to the support of a remarkable institution he has found his voice and the promise of a brighter future.

For three years now, Mohammed has been attending the Father Andeweg Institute for the Deaf (FAID) in Hazmieh, a leafy suburb on the Damascus Road in the hills above Beirut.

Originally from Idlib, Syria, he did not attend schools at home as they were not accessible to children with hearing impairments. He still needs surgery and a proper hearing aid, which his parents cannot afford as they struggle to make ends meet in Lebanon.

In many cases, before finding the school, parents had given up hope of their children having the same opportunities as other children. But Mohammed’s mother, Salima, told officials from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, during a recent tour of the school that she was delighted that her son had been given a chance.

“I can clearly see how much he has progressed since coming here. He can finally speak,” she said. “Mohammed has made friends, he’s very happy there.”

Aid organizations have estimated that among the nearly five million refugees from the conflict in Syria in the region, one in five has a physical, sensory or intellectual impairment. In situations of forced displacement, those with disabilities often face barriers to accessing services and are given few opportunities to play an active role in their communities.

“I can clearly see how much he has progressed since coming here. He can finally speak.”

Founded in 1957 by Father Andy Andeweg, a Dutch Anglican priest who died in 1999, FAID is one of a handful of establishments in the country that offers specialist speech and auditory therapy. It welcomes Lebanese and Syrian children aged 3-18 with hearing disabilities, from different religious backgrounds.

 “It’s essential for children living with disabilities to have access to specialized education and care so that they can regain their self-confidence and become active members of their society," said Mireille Girard, UNHCR’s Representative in Lebanon.

During the 2015-2016 school year, UNHCR piloted specific needs education programmes in the south and the north of the country, working with the government and other partners like Restart and Caritas. The programme will expand this year.

The FAID school feels like an oasis of calm nestled above Lebanon’s boisterous capital. Its 60 children, 14 of whom are Syrians, have varying degrees of speech and hearing difficulties and are taught the Lebanese curriculum, in English and Arabic.

Free of charge, it provides the kind of therapy, counselling and specialized support in small classes that is extremely rare in this fragile region, including extras like clothes and food. Some kids return home each night, while others board for the week before returning as far as the Bekaa valley.

“We work on building the whole personality of the child to prepare them for life ahead."

The FAID pupils have access to expert diagnosis from medical doctor Nemer Attieh, head of speech and hearing, who has worked at the school for over 20 years. He maps phoneme frequency ranges, and fits and adapts hearing devices, referring some to local hospitals for cochlear implant surgery – the insertion of electronic devices in the inner ear to improve auditory processing. The school aims to move its pupils swiftly beyond signing to lip reading and oral communication.

Funding comes from the government as well as charities including Ireland-based Lebanon Trust, started by Christy Kinsella, who served three tours in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s as a UN peacekeeper. After retiring, he came back to Lebanon, discovered the school and was hooked. “You just have to come back,” Kinsella said. “The difference you see in the children is amazing. It’s a labour of love.”

Lebanon Trust finances part of the salaries for the school’s staff, and conducts maintenance work

Lina Atallah, FAID’s academic supervisor, said the students face particular challenges as there is little provision for their disabilities during exams or at university. Despite that, FAID students have made it to reputed universities and some are holding down good jobs.

“We work on building the whole personality of the child to prepare them for life ahead,” she said. “They need to discover what they are good at. They are all fighters.”

Learn more about the International Day of Persons with Disabilities