Deema Dabis
Ma'an News Agency
July 6, 2009 - 12:00am

"I think that the biggest difference I make is that I actually show people that a disabled person can be members of society.

"They look at me and they go woah, she walks funny but she seems to have all this power and she has no fear and her eyes are always looking straight ahead, she doesn't look down,” said founder of Maysoon’s Kids, Maysoon Zaayid. “I want people to think that hey, if I can do that, there is hope for my kid.”

A Palestinian-American woman comedian with Cerebral Palsy who has appeared on screen next to the likes of Adam Sandler, co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival and performed at the Democratic National Convention last year, Zaayid is a testament to the difference between a disabled population that is hidden away and highly dependent on others and one that is encouraged and empowered.

"I was in Jordan and I was watching the news, and I just saw all the bombing and all the destruction,” Zaaiyd recalled of 2000, shortly before she founded Maysoon’s Kids. “All I could think was my God, so many Palestinian children are becoming disabled, in a society that doesn't know how to deal with disabilities."

Maysoon’s Kids was founded in 2001 following the maiming of more than 6,000 Palestinians by Israeli forces via their “shoot and maim” policy during the second Intifadah. While those born with disabilities are also served by Maysoon’s Kids, a significant proportion of those who take part in services were disabled as a result of the bullets, bomb shrapnel and unexploded ordinance of the Israeli occupation.

“One of our main roles is to educate the community and dispel myths of disabilities, to mainstream it and the need to treat these people like human beings,” says Zaayid. To that end she is working with nearly a dozen physical/occupational therapy and service centers to make her dream a reality.

Much of Maysoon’s acting and comedy career provide the funding for her organization, which serves 11 different refugee camps and villages. On a Saturday morning visit to the Karameh Rehabilitation Center inside the Jalazun Refugee Camp, Zaayid’s contribution to the community is made clear.

The center opened in 2000 to serve the needs of the disabled in the area. Husam Balayan, founder of the organization, has cerebral palsy and uses walking sticks so he can move around. “I opened this center because I have cerebral palsy,” said Balayan, “I needed services and at the time there was nothing for me.”

The organization does not receive funding from the Palestinian Authority because working in the camp they are technically under the umbrella of the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. The camp is also located in West Bank Area B, under partial Israeli military control. Because of the lack of government support, Maysoon’s Kids has been working with the center since 2002 to address its needs and find ways to fill in the gaps.

The Jalazun center, which has 250 registered clients with developmental or a physical disabilities, is the only of its kind in the camp and before it opened people used to travel to nearby Ramallah for services. Now because of checkpoints and settler roads any trip that was normally 15 minutes long is an hour. Right now the center has one physical therapist working two days a week three hours a day at the clinic.

In Jalazun, 2.5 out of every 100 residents have a physical or developmental disability. The growing need in the camp saw Maysoon’s Kids become involved and push efforts to raise money for the center. “The plan is to get physical therapists from outside to come and work side by side with physical therapists here,” says Maysoon, “to work with the locals.” In addition to this Maysoons Kids will work with the center to hire at least one full time physical therapist. The dream for the center is to provide a variety of free services so that more people will be encouraged to participate.

"Disability is not failure"

In 2008 Zaayid held two benefit stand-up comedy shows in Ramallah at the Kasaba Theatre and Bethlehem at Dar An-Nadwa for Karameh Rehabilitation Center. Her routine had audiences laughing about the bizarre experiences of a disabled Palestinian flying into the notoriously anti-Arab Ben Gurion International Airport.

“If security looks for nervous and twitchy Arabs,” she said with dry sarcasm, “what do you think they did with a shaking Palestinian with the Palsy?”

Masoon’s Kids, just like Zaaiyd, works to educate and bring into the open stigmas and stereotypes around people with disabilities.

For many families in Palestine, particularly where services are poor, when children are born with disabilities parents feel a sense of failure. Embarrassment on the part of the parents over “bad genes” stigmatizes the child and results in isolation and little effort to seek services; this is not often the case with those wounded. When a Palestinian is injured, particularly as the result of an Israeli attack, they are seen as martyrs, heroes of the resistance.

So, beyond the physical aspects of disability, Zaayid advocates for inclusiveness into the community and the development of programs that harness the skills of Palestine’s disabled. At the Silwad Rehabilitation Center volunteers for Maysoon’s Kids unload arts and crafts supplies, notebooks, fabric, therapeutic puzzles and toys as well as plain ceramic pots donated by Maysoon's Kids.

The supplies go toward teaching programs in reading and writing as well as electrical work, cooking, personal hygiene, arts and crafts and cross stitching amongst other trade and life skills.

“Part of our program is to do workshops with mothers to educate them about their child’s disability,” says Center Manager and social worker Majda Hamid. “We’ve had a lot of success in overcoming social stigmas here.”

Majda is driven by the desire to fill the gap between what this community needs and what is there to assist them integrating into society. “The building of the center here has brought hope to the people and families it is helping,” says Majda, “it has brought people a long way from wanting to hide.”

The center was built and is run by the women’s collective Charitable Silwad Ladies and gets funding from the Swedish organization Olaf Palmel. The organization serves 55 patients aged five to 30 with disabilities from downs syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, the traumatically deaf to what some call “Palestine Disability,” when a child seems fine but exhibits the signs and symptoms like not speaking and slow development. This may in part be attributed to psychological stress as a result of the occupation thus leading to things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that goes untreated.

Ultimately Maysoon’s Kids seeks to create fully functioning clinics throughout Palestine completely furnished with locally made equipment (all her donations go to by locally made goods only) that is tailored to meet disabled needs. This includes everything from physical therapy equipment, to toys and playgrounds. Where there are no products, Zaayid asks craftsmen to make them, creating industries where none existed, raising awareness of the needs of disabled Palestinians and keeping donations employing Palestinians.

Zaaiyd’s “buy Palestinian” policy only strengthens her, and Maysoon’s Kids’, philosophy, that with the strength of the community comes the activation, empowerment and strengthening of all its members.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017