The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority rules the West Bank whereas the Gaza Strip is controlled by the Islamist Hamas. Both territories are geographically separated by Israel, but an internal split and the Israeli military rule makes them even farther apart. Israel manages the movement of Palestinians between the two territories.
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Three engineers in Ramallah and two in Gaza are putting the final touches on the first sensory room in the territory after a month of online correspondence. Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) funded the project.
The new space is equipped with lights, music and interactive surfaces that stimulate the senses. Designed to isolate external distractions, it allows for vivid sensory experiences that help develop visual and verbal communication skills.
Sensory rooms are used for relaxation and stress relief, but also have therapeutic effects on children with disabilities or those suffering from communication problems.
Engineers at Iris Interactive Solutions in Ramallah designed and produced most of the equipment needed to fill the room, which is located in a town about two and a half miles north of Gaza City at the Jabalia Rehabilitation Society.
Asma’ Al-Mukayad, who is a coordinator for the room and also works in Jabalia’s refugee camp, told The Media Line she senses the need for this space.
“People in the Gaza Strip, not only in refugee camps, are suffering from external and internal pressure. The war experiences, difficult economic situations and social problems cause physiological problems,” she said. “When the father is not working and lives with his seven or eight children in a two-room house, how do you expect their lives to be?”
The concept of the project was to create a community-based center where parents and children can relieve stress together.
“The center is available for the entire community but priority will focus on children with disabilities,” Al-Mukayad said, explaining that a schedule for the room’s availability has not been finalized.
Iris previously installed two sensory rooms in the West Bank, one in Jenin and the other in Nablus.
Majd Hanbali, a psychotherapist at Care for Children with Special Needs Society in Nablus, is very happy with the room there. She said the experience helped ease children’s anger, and stimulated them to react through music and lights.
“The sensory room allowed us to easily grab the children’s attention and encourage them to interact with the therapists,” Hanbali said, explaining that tools especially help infants learn to interact with their surroundings. “These children find it hard to play with traditional toys like jigsaw puzzles, color sorting toys and beads.”
The Gaza project was delayed because engineers didn’t receive Israeli permits needed for Palestinians to go from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, a process that often takes more than a month.
Israel inspects and approves all materials going into Gaza. After it was stuck at the border for a month, staff members from Medical Aid for Palestinians carried the sensory room equipment through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing. MAP’s program officer, Esprenza Mahmoud Shanan, told The Media Line that the organization sought outside assistance.
“Gaza is a part of our mission in Palestine,” she said. “We thought that the process wouldn’t be difficult if we use local sources. However, the Israeli occupation made it harder for us to work in the Gaza Strip.”
Once the equipment was finally in Gaza, it took time for engineers to make it functional, as they had not been trained to use the new machines.
From his office in Ramallah, Mohammed Nanish, a project manager with Iris, hosted an online conference with the engineers.
“We prepared a video explaining the installation process,” Nanish told The Media Line. “We reviewed every step together via Skype, and tried to solve the problems facing the installation.”
The complicated set-up involved a large number of wires and a shortage of electric power in Gaza, due to the lack of fuel, slowed the project.
“We had to stop the calls at 2 pm because then the electricity would be cut off,” Al-Mukayad said from Gaza. These sudden cuts in power affected the equipment.
Hundreds of those who come to the Jabalia center can’t wait for the 16-square-meter room to be open. In fact, it’s a few Skype calls away and is expected to be ready next week.
“It’s a crazy project and a risky endeavor,” Nanish explained in Ramallah. “But it’s a source of pride for us, and we see it as a part of our social responsibility.”
Though the difficult political, economic and social situation in Gaza has widened the gap between people there and in the West Bank, perhaps the collaboration to install this sensory room has mended that rift.
“It’s not a secret that we feel that we are suffering more or that we are forgotten,” Al-Mukayad said. “But this project showed me how close we are as a people and how many obstacles we overcome.”
Article written by Diana Atallah
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line
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