KUFR ZEIBAD, State of Palestine, 6 January 2014 – Mariam is 14 years old. She lives in Kufr Zeibad, a tiny village in the northern West Bank. She attends school and will work in the family’s small sewing shop, once she has completed her secondary education.
When Mariam was a few months old, her mother, Maysa, noticed that her head circumference seemed smaller than normal, for her age. She took Mariam to a nearby hospital, where she was diagnosed with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder.
Despite the abnormal growth of Mariam’s brain, Maysa insisted on sending her to school. But, as Mariam grew, Maysa worried that she could not learn and study like other children, so she pulled her out of school. “I felt I had no choice,” she recalls. “It was too difficult to assist my daughter with her homework every day, especially as my older daughter Aya suffers from the same condition.” Aya, too, had dropped out of school – when she was 12.
A return to education
Nabil Ghanayem, the coordinator at the local UNICEF-supported adolescent-friendly space, met Mariam and took up her case.
“I was convinced that Mariam could build her personality and gain self-confidence at school,” he says. “Like each of us, she had something to contribute to society.”
He lobbied Mariam’s mother to let Mariam complete her education. Mr. Ghanayem also encouraged Mariam to participate in the various recreational activities held at the Kufr Zeibad adolescent-friendly space.
One year later, Mariam has resumed her education. She also goes to the centre three times a week, after school. “I enjoy drawing, and I like it the most when I am drawing with my friends,” she says.
Mariam has developed life skills that have enhanced her self-confidence and improved her communication skills. “I am no longer afraid to talk to people,” she says. “I have so many friends at school and at the centre!”
Maysa says she has noticed the difference in Mariam’s personality. She is now able to communicate with others, solve problems – and is always happy to participate in activities with other adolescents.
A role model
Maysa has raised her children by herself since her husband passed away. While she understands that Aya and Mariam have a shorter life expectancy than her other children, she is now resolute not to leave them at home.
UNICEF Youth and Development Officer Maysoon Obeidi discusses the importance of ensuring Aya, Mariam and all other children have access to education and activities. “Adolescents like Mariam must be provided with opportunities to learn new skills and to release their full potential so they can become active participants in society – and help address negative social attitudes and perceptions,” she says.
In fact, says Mr. Ghanayem, just by virtue of her attending school and the centre, Mariam has had quite an impact on her peers. “Mariam is a true success story for the whole village,” he says. “She has become a role model for all the children her age.”
UNICEF, with funding from the Italian National Committee, supports 58 adolescent-friendly spaces across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. The centres provide more than 85,000 adolescents with opportunities to participate in recreational and psychosocial activities, sports and life skills–based education, with a special focus on the most vulnerable children.
The centres also help support the effective participation, development and inclusion of children with disabilities, so they can have their voices heard in society.
Story by Monica Awad