Rooster, student, girl: Gaza’s elderly learn to read

Palestinian women in Gaza in a classroom for reading instruction

Zaher Radi, 72, in black, and Inshrah Shaheen, 76, to her right, participate in a literacy class at the Aged Care Association in Gaza.

Ghada Al-Haddad The Electronic Intifada

Zaher Radi never thought she would learn to read and write. At the age of 72, she thought she was too old for such a thing.

But on this Saturday morning in August, she wrapped up her chores at her home in Gaza’s Beach refugee camp and set off through its narrow alleyways to attend a literacy class at the Aged Care Association.

“I was always eager to read the Holy Quran,” she said. “I always wanted to write my name.”

Radi was born in 1950, two years after the Nakba, the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. At that time of instability, many parents were afraid to send their children to school, especially girls, so she never learned to read or write.

When she heard about the literacy classes for the elderly, she “immediately joined,” she said.

She has now attended classes for over a year and a half – a welcome shift in her daily routine of cooking, cleaning and embroidery. She is happy and proud that she can read and write in Arabic.

Economic insecurity among the elderly

Radi is among 700 elderly Palestinians who take part in activities and classes at the Aged Care Association in Gaza City. The association also offers embroidery and knitting classes, and it distributes meals and medicine to the elderly.

Founded in 1980, the group aims to help improve the health and social conditions of elderly Palestinians.

Iyad Hilles, the head of the Aged Care Association, said that the desire for services among the elderly in Gaza is huge.

“Ninety percent of the elderly beneficiaries [of the association] are economically insecure and live below the poverty line,” he said.

The association provides them with textbooks and other school supplies, though the lack of a stable budget is an ongoing challenge for the association, as they rely solely on donations from other local organizations and individuals.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the association decided to suspend classes.

“We were very concerned about their health, especially during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hilles said. “We could not jeopardize their lives.”

Rooster, student, girl, boy

The Aged Care Association is located in a two-story building in the middle of Gaza City. It is an older building, with wood-frame windows and doors.

The classroom where the women gather three days a week is simple, and the students sit around a large group of tables gathered at the center of the room.

The volunteer teacher, Yusra Matar, also known as Um Maher, stands at the head of the class and displays flashcards in Arabic to the women.

Al-deek,” she says. “Al-talab, al-bint, al-walad.”

The rooster, the student, the girl, the boy.

The students sound out the words after her.

Matar started coming to the association and using its services after she turned 60. During the 1980s, though, she lived in Saudi Arabia and worked as a teacher at a primary school.

Now, at the association, she uses a basic curriculum developed by the Abdel Shafi Community Health Association, a sister organization based in Gaza City, to teach elderly women how to read.

“I try to teach them with different educational methods, like combining and dividing the words into syllables, completing the missing letters and doing crosswords,” she said.

She said the students’ levels vary, from excellent to poor. This typically depends on the women’s levels of past education and how much time they have to dedicate to practice reading at home.

“I’ve seen some women struggle and stutter while reading books,” Matar said. “One word would sometimes take hours.”

Matar said her students are incredibly dedicated. Sometimes, when a student misses a class, she tries to make it up the next day.

Though the women can also be “naughty,” she said playfully, “which makes my teaching very worthwhile.”

“I almost forgot how to read and write”

Students like Inshrah Shaheen, 76, and Turkiyya Hana, 64, appreciate the opportunities provided by the center.

Shaheen used to struggle to find certain places, like a doctor’s office, because she couldn’t read the signs.

“Now, I stop for every single street sign in the street in an attempt to read it,” Shaheen said. “If accompanied by one of my grandchildren, I ask them not to read it. I should read it myself.”

Her children and grandchildren were pleased that she has learned to read.

Hana, who lives in the Shujaiya area east of Gaza City, came to literacy classes with a sixth-grade education. At that time, her family did not consider her education a priority and she withdrew from school.

“No one encouraged me to pursue my education then,” she said. “I almost forgot how to read and write.”

When she heard about the center through word of mouth, she was encouraged to know that women of her age were pursuing their education.

“Better than nothing,” Hana said. “I said, if they can do it, I’m going to try.”

Ghada Al-Haddad is a journalist based in Gaza.