Whilst speaking to house mothers at one of the more unique boarding schools in Egypt, Saleem Wassef challenged them to maintain hope with difficult children.
“Repeat yourself over and over again, because it is a long journey to raise a child,” said the administrative director. “Keep teaching them, even though they don’t listen.”
As every father, mother, and teacher knows, this is wise advice. What prompts the added italics is the setting. Technically speaking, the house mothers were not listening either.
Suzanne, Maryam, and Marina are deaf, graduates of the school in question. They live full time with 45 students at the Deaf Unit, a ministry of the Anglican Church of Egypt located in Old Cairo. One-third are from Upper Egypt, the rest from poor areas of Greater Cairo. Ten others commute from nearby.
Founded in 1982, the Deaf Unit provides essential education to a segment of the population that is often seen as a source of shame. “To have a disability or a disabled child is sometimes seen as punishment from God for the sins of the family,” states the school’s website. “But one of our key objectives is to change these cultural attitudes by working with families and communities to educate them and build relationships.”
According to a 2007 study by the World Health Organization, 16 percent of Egyptians suffer from some degree of hearing loss. The Deaf Unit estimates two million are hard of hearing. The government provides deaf schools, but Wassef, a former director-general in the Ministry of Education, says these are overcrowded and not up to a satisfactory standard.
Marina goes further. Twenty-years-old, she is currently completing her high school degree in the government system. The Deaf Unit offers classes only through elementary, defined in the deaf curriculum as kindergarten through 8th grade.
“Government schools do not work hard enough, with insufficient focus on education,” an annoyed Marina gestured with her hands. “Some of the teachers don’t even know sign language.” She skips classes altogether, learning material through a private tutor while Deaf Unit students are in sessions. The rest of the day she mothers them, finding the sixteen teenagers especially challenging.
At the end of each school year Marina takes her tests in the government system, which for the first time provided a high school equivalency exam for the deaf. Egypt is making progress in attending to the needs of this neglected population, and Cairo University is opening its doors to graduates.
Though the Deaf Unit is not permitted to administer examinations, the government greatly appreciates their service, said Wassef. There is now one Muslim student enrolled after authorities encouraged the diocese to open classes to all. Wassef is currently seeking state authorization to extend classes through the preparatory level, in deaf terms from 9th through 11th grade.
“We have to be a model in front of the children, because they will follow someone and right now the morals of many are low,” Wassef told the three house mothers. “And in the end you will be able to say, ‘We developed these leaders.’”
Serving the whole society is part of the ethos of the Anglican Church, Wassef explained, and special attention is given to employ their students. Suzanne, Maryam, and Marina are examples, but several others work outside of Cairo, where community-based rehabilitation groups operate in Luxor, Minya, and Menouf. An audiology clinic operates at the Deaf Unit, which in two years plans to employ four deaf to administer hearing tests and produce ear molds. In 6 October City, the diocese runs a full-scale Vocational Training Center.
Setting their sights at a young age, the Deaf Unit takes a field trip to KFC in Dokki, where a socially-conscious hearing manager has employed several deaf behind the counter. Most customers can only confusedly point to their food selections, but by placing the deaf in the public eye the culture slowly changes.
The Deaf Unit does what it can to speed up the process. Sign language classes are offered once a week to parents, relatives, and the general public, said Ramez, the financial manager, with an intensive course each summer. A native of Old Cairo attending the historic Jesus, Light of the World Church, he was intrigued by the fifty-plus member deaf congregation that also meets at the facility. He studied sign language and has watched others learn. “Before too long,” he said, “anyone can sign professionally.”
Thirty to fifty Egyptians are trained each year, with special instruction available for non-Arabic speaking foreigners. Courses are offered at minimal charge, but the Deaf Unit stands in need of donations. None of the 55 students pay more than 200 LE ($22 US) per year. Wassef says the per-student yearly cost is 17,000 LE ($2,000 US).
But beyond donations, the Deaf Unit appreciates even non-signing volunteers to help with physical education, computers, and vocational training. And for the truly dedicated, teachers and room mothers are welcome. Suzanne, who has 18 years of experience, recalls with a smile her school days when foreign mothers helped raise them.
None have been on staff since the 2011 revolution, but neither can any replace the authentic model. “Our children like foreigners because they look different and are fun,” she said. “It is like what they see on TV."
“But they prefer the house mothers to be deaf, because we are like them and can understand."
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