When she concentrates, Hibba can put the right words on colours and letters. But this is not a given. She often hesitates and sometimes makes mistakes. At the age of 10, Hibba Rashid does not go to school. Since she was born, this shy but smiling girl has been aflicted by muscular dystrophy, which has delayed her mental development.
Two days a week, Hibba goes to the Al-Maqdessiyeh centre for child and family development in Ramallah, which is run by the Palestine Red Crescent (PRCS). There, she follows a tailor-made educational programme that includes physiotherapy, speech and language learning sessions. She also learns the basics of reading and writing, using toys and games.
"Of course, we don't expect her to become a genius," explains Diana Abdo, the director of the centre and a US-trained speech pathologist. "Like everyone, our children have different potentials and abilities, which we try to develop as much as possible."
Established in 1995 by a Palestinian non-governmental organisation, the Al-Maqdessiyeh centre was taken over by the Red Crescent in 2000. It has since been welcoming children with various kinds of disabilities, such as hearing, speech and language impairments, motor and visual difficulties, mental retardation and congenital abnormalities.
According to Diana Abdo, an important part of her job and that of her five-strong team of specialists is to mitigate the psycho-social consequences of the handicap on both the children and their relatives. Even if Hibba's family is very accepting and supportive, taboos and stigma towards the disabled still prevail within the Palestinian society.
"In multi-children families, the priority is traditionally given to the education of boys," Abdo explains. "So what should disabled girls expect?" With a social worker, she dedicates one day a week to visiting families in the Ramallah district and encouraging a dialogue aimed at changing beliefs and attitudes towards the disabled.
As the only institution of its kind in the West Bank, the Al-Maqdessiyeh centre has become a referral institution, serving children with special needs in communities across the territory.
Home to 7,000 people, the village of Qatanneh lies some 15 km south-west of Ramallah, close to the "green line" separating the Palestinian territories from Israel.
"Qatanneh is not what we call a wealthy neighbourhood, and inter-family marriage there is still very common," says Mohammad Asia, coordinator at the PRCS headquarters, explaining why this community was chosen to benefit from a pilot project for the early detection of disabilities among children.
Once a month, Diana Abdo and her team come to Qatanneh to screen children at the PRCS health centre. Between October and December 2002, 110 children were identified in this way. "IQ tests and simple toys are used to rapidly assess the cognitive capabilities of the kids," explains Abdo.
The most frequent disabilities among Qatanneh's children are communication impairments, followed by psychosocial problems, motor disorders and mental retardation. The most severe cases are referred to the Al-Maqdessiyeh centre for further assessment. "Some may also need laboratory tests, medical treatment or even surgery," Abdo notes. "They are then sent to specialists within the PRCS, public or private institutions."
The groundwork, though, is done by the medical staff of the Qatanneh health centre during their daily consultations. Fifteen doctors, nurses and social workers were trained in August on all types of disabilities, and how to detect them.
"Equally important, a nurse and a social worker carry out home visits across the village, to identify disabled children whose parents may be reluctant to bring them to the health centre," explains Asia. Awareness sessions are also organized in schools and various community events.
Implemented with financial support from the Empress Shoken Fund, the Qatanneh project is meant to be replicated soon in other vulnerable communities of the West Bank.
With such initiatives, the Red Crescent is leading those in Palestinian civil society who fight to protect the dignity of disabled people, a challenge made more difficult by two years of acute crisis and decades of military occupation.
"Circumstances have hindered the development of disabled persons' rights," deplores Dr Fayeq Hussein, the PRCS deputy director general, from his Ramallah office. "The Palestinian government, which once had a key role in this, cannot play it any longer, and household resources are directed toward expenses that are considered more important than the development of disabled dependents."
Begun by a few branches in the 1970s, PRCS activities for the disabled were stepped up in the mid-1990s. By 2002, the National Society was running 14 rehabilitation centres providing services to more than 21,000 disabled children and adults and family members across the Palestinian territories.