HOW ARE THINGS AT HOME?" GERRY Shawa asks Ismail Jedba, a 12-year-old student at the school she founded in Gaza.

"I am taking care of the chickens, but I wish my sister would help more," the boy replies, his fingers flying. Complaints about siblings are nothing new, but Ismail's are: three years ago he could not communicate anything at all. Ismail is deaf, and until 1992 there was no school in the Gaza Strip to teach sign language.

That was remedied by Shawa, 51, a native Chicagoan who is married to a Palestinian and has lived in Gaza since 1972. Working for the United Nations-sponsored Child Development Center there, she noticed a large number of deaf children—and saw that no one was helping them. "I discovered we had no services," says Shawa, "and I felt I had to do something. It became an obsession." Today her school, the Atfaluna ("Our Children") Center for Deaf Children, has 91 students. "When they came here, they had no way of communicating," she says, standing in a classroom where the sound of fingers patting palms fills the air. "Now, just look. They're gossiping, learning, sharing."

Simply to live in the Gaza Strip is a challenge for many. Thirty miles long and bordered by Egypt and Israel, the region is home to 900,000 Palestinians, many living in overcrowded refugee camps. Seized by Israel in 1967, the Strip became a breeding ground of hate that helped ignite the Intifada (uprising) in 1987. Granted self-rule last May, misery and violence still haunt the area. Even among Gaza's struggling and impoverished, the deaf were considered outcasts. Almost none attended school and many could not find work. There have been estimates that some 15,000 Gazans are deaf.

Dressed in uniforms of blue sweaters and skirts or pants, the children, aged 4 to 14, spend their days learning skills other family members never acquired. "A lot of the parents (hearing ones included) can't read or write," notes Shawa. "Now here is this little deaf kid who can write a letter for them." Her affection for the children is reciprocated. They clamor around her and seem to have adopted this woman in Western dress the same way she adopted their troubled homeland 23 years ago.

Born Geraldine Fanter on Chicago's West Side, Shawa grew up in an American melting pot. Her father, Robert, a retired heating engineer, is of Scandinavian descent, and her mother, Violet (now deceased), was of Polish descent. Their neighbors were Irish and Italian. "It was an interesting neighborhood," says Shawa, "and great fun."

It was as a forestry student at Utah State University that she was attracted to yet another ethnicity. There she met Yasser Shawa, a Palestinian Arab studying journalism. They married in 1962 (she was 19, he was 28), had a daughter, Noelle, and a son, Jason, and moved to Laguna Hills, Calif., in 1969. Tragedy struck that August when Yasser, then 35, died of a heart attack, leaving Gerry pregnant with son Yasser.

Later that year, faced with raising three children alone, Shawa left California, not to return to her family in Chicago but to join her husband's in Kuwait, where the Shawas provided financial security. The move offered emotional security as well. Within three years, Gerry, then 28, wed her late husband's oldest brother, Issam, 20 years her senior and a personnel director for Gulf Oil Corp. "It was just very natural," she says. "My kids felt comfortable with him and had begun calling him Daddy." (Divorced, Is-sam had four children already grown.)

In 1972 the family moved to Gaza, where the Shawas (who owned a 15-room, Moorish-style home) were influential—Issam's father, Rushdi, had once been mayor. A year later the couple had a daughter named Newerah. It was in Gaza that Gerry learned Arabic. While still raising her children, she joined a U.N. group performing medical exams. "Mothers would come with children aged 3 or 4 and say they weren't talking," recalls Shawa. A clap behind the child's back solved the mystery: they were deaf. Within five years, doctors diagnosed 4,000 cases.

In 1992, with a $40,000 grant from a private Japanese charity, Shawa rented a seedy, three-room apartment and hired eight teachers. Within a year she raised enough funds to move the operation to two floors of a three-story villa.

For her students the handsome villa is a safe haven. In contrast to their ramshackle homes—where children share dusty yard space with chickens and goats—the school is clean and orderly. The floors are carpeted, and the walls are decorated with charts of vegetables and pictures of bunny rabbits. The staff, now grown to 20 instructors (five of them deaf), teaches not only sign language but math, science and other subjects. "Atfaluna is exceptional and in some ways superior to deaf schools in America," says Becky Hicks Walker, 32, a North Carolina missionary working as a sign-language consultant at the school. "They are concerned with the total needs of the students, not just with educational goals."

Though her own children, now aged 22 to 28, are scattered from Jordan to Canada, Shawa says she has no desire to return to America. Indeed, she is seeking deaf volunteers from the U.S. and is raising money to open a branch school for some of the 500 children on the waiting list. Despite strong tensions between Yasser Arafat's administration, which took control of Gaza last year after Israel withdrew from the long-disputed territory, and Muslim extremists, Shawa says the children are not very aware of the politics.

For now, it's enough that they feel emotionally secure and optimistic. With the withdrawal of occupation forces, Shawa says the children are more at ease. "They used to draw pictures all the time of ambulances and people lying in blood and mothers protecting their children [from soldiers during the Intifada]," says Shawa. "Since the pullout there has been much less of this. Now they draw flowers and gardens and orange groves."

KEVIN GRAY
ABE RABINOVICH in Gaza

  • Contributors:
  • Abe Rabinovich.