By Maryam Mahmoud
Hiba Al Sharfa is a 29-year-old Palestinian teacher’s aide with Down Syndrome. She helps students who have the same disability in a school at the Right to Live Society, in Gaza City.
She is a former pupil of the school. “I came to this organization when I was young, when I was four years old. I came when I was young to the Right to Live Society. I used to read and spell with the teacher and I was able to understand all the letters so I would spell them, pronounce them and write each letter,” she said, adding that one day she hopes to be in charge of a class of her own.
According to one of Al-Sharfa’s colleagues, special education teacher Nawal Ben Saeed, this is a first for the Gaza school which is making strides in challenging stereotypes: “Hiba has become the first Down syndrome teacher, at the ‘Right to Live’ Society, because she proved herself and challenged her disability, and this is how she became the first teacher with Down syndrome in all of the Strip”.
For the students here it isn’t just about learning to read and write. Al-Sharfa also acts as a role model demonstrating that their disability shouldn’t deter them from achieving their dreams. “I would like to become an assistant teacher like Hiba, who would assist, teach, and teach the student, to go to the classroom and let them (the student) read,” said one of the students.
The school specializes in teaching children with Down Syndrome and autism. There are more than 600 pupils who attend the school daily, as well another 150 who are supported in their learning at home.
The school’s director of rehabilitation programmes, Nabeel Haneed, hopes to show that Al-Sharfa’s role in the school will ‘change the outlook of parents and society’. Right to Live is now training a small group of students with Down syndrome to follow in her classroom footsteps.