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Israeli project empowers young Arab cancer patients

Posted By Stuart Winer On June 26, 2005 @ 8:00 pm In | No Comments

Participants in the program – due to their better-established oncology facilities, Hadassah treats Arab children from beyond the Jerusalem area, including some who come from the Palestinian Authority. The folk music drifted along the corridors of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center as a group of Arab children entertained their families and friends with a lively series of performances. To the accompaniment of clapping hands and live music from an oud, a traditional guitar-like instrument, the children, as young as five-years-old, cavorted, danced, and played out pantomimes of their own production.

For two hours the performers and their audience focused on the fun of it all, and in so doing could forget the cancer that, whether past or present, linked their lives.

The event earlier this month was the culmination of the Young Artists project in which young Arabic-speaking cancer patients in Israel were encouraged to express their artistic talents in an effort to build confidence and alter perceptions – of themselves and how those around them see them.

“They have a terrible experience with the disease and so they miss a lot of the experiences that children of their age have,” explains Huda Ebrahim, a social worker in the hospital’s Child Oncology Department. “We wanted to do something to prevent them from being cut off from their environment.”

Ebrahim, together with student of social work Haneeu Majadly, organized the Young Artists project to prevent the children being ‘labeled’ as ill.

“I believe that each child has an internal ability, and if we give them the encouragement and the opportunity then they can be like regular children,” Ebrahim told ISRAEL21c. “The way that you see them playing now, they look just like regular children, they don¹t look like children who are ill.”

The project involved 37 children between 5-17 years of age in various stages of treatment or recuperation. Due to their better-established oncology facilities, Hadassah treats Arab children from beyond the Jerusalem area, including some who come from the Palestinian Authority.

Over a three-month period Majadly helped the children develop their ideas for personal projects that included drawing, sculpture, dancing, theater, and telling their life stories. In addition, Ebrahim invited former patients who are now cured of their illness to attend the final event where they could give moral support to those still undergoing treatment.

Majadly became involved with Hadassah for a project in her final year of social work studies. As part of their studies students are required to spend a year engaged in a social work project. Majadly says she chose the oncology
department because it presented the greatest challenges with both the children and their families trying to come to terms with the illness.

“Everyone, including the families cast the children in the role of an ill person, and I didn’t like that,” Majadly says. “They [the children] can do more than just sit in bed.”

The idea for promoting art in the childrens’ lives came to Majadly from her experiences with a ten-year-old cancer sufferer at the hospital with whom she had failed to communicate. During therapy sessions the boy would ignore her
attempts to open conversation and remained silent. However, during her third session the boy found a coloring pen in her bag and began drawing with it. Then, to her surprise and delight, he asked if she could bring the pen to
future sessions.

“It was the first time I had heard the sound of his voice,” she recalls. As Majadly developed her relationship with the boy she began to think of employing the same idea with the other children in her care too.

“It was fun, so I thought why not use it in a project that develops the abilities that each child has,” she says.

When Majadly first suggested the idea for an art development course to hospital authorities she says she met with some skepticism, not least
because of the difficulties in finding an Arabic art instructor who could work with the children.

Majadly explains there is a dearth of Arab-speaking art instructors in Jerusalem area – a problem compounded by a general aversion to confronting the disease among Arab communities.

“It was hard to prove that the project is worthwhile doing at the hospital because there is no one who can work with them in Arabic,” she recalls. “But I wanted to get to a specific result, to improve the welfare of the person.”

Furthermore, the required instructor needed to understand the importance of art in the children’s therapy. Majadly, who speaks fluent Hebrew, instead took art courses herself and then brought her new knowledge to the children to help them develop their ideas.

Art therapy is a well-established theory for treating children. Through their art children can give voice to all the things they can’t express vocally, Majadly explains. However, instead of using art to draw out the children’s inner feelings, Majadly used the medium to express an idea.

“The message that they all got is that they can do it,” Majadly said.

Among those who took part in the project was ten-year-old Suah, from Gilo, in Jerusalem. Suah who has learning difficulties, began treatment for her cancer two years ago and is now in the recuperation stage. The young girl is very shy of strangers, even with coaxing from her mother Suad. But during the Young Artists event Suah mustered the courage to play a solo drum piece that delighted the audience who joined in with her rhythm.

“It was very moving,” said Suad, who admits she didn¹t believe her daughter would perform until she took to the stage. “Her whole face was lit up.”

“The project helps them to understand what they can do themselves,” Ebrahim says.

Due to the success of the project Hadassah now intends to repeat the program for future young oncology patients.

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