Giving a voice to the voiceless: Meet the Gazan speech therapist helping Syrian refugees find their voice

Gazan speech therapist hopes to give voice to the voiceless
4 min read
16 December, 2021
Suffering from the psychological trauma of conflict, many Syrian refugees have grown up with crippling speech disorders. The New Arab meets one Gazan speech therapist, who has helped over a hundred children find their voice when all seemed lost.

When The New Arab first met Gazan speech therapist Mohammed Al-Hayek, he was finishing preparing for an online therapy session with a Syrian child in Turkey. Having greeted us, Mohammed swiftly returned to his office, making sure to inform his assistant that no one should disturb him during the appointment. He seemed focused, ready to meet his professional challenge head-on.

After 40 minutes, Mohammed returned with noticeable satisfaction on his face. "Thank Goodness! I've just finished completing the course of treatment with this Syrian child. It means I can receive another case over the coming days," Mohammed told The New Arab gleefully. 

It has been a whirlwind journey for Mohammed, 32. Having graduated from the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences from Gaza College, he quickly began working for a local civil society organisation, subsequently working for the Red Crescent as a speech therapist in a number of Gazan schools. 

"In the case of Gazan and Syrian children, the most common reason for speech disorders is war, which affects them severely"

"I took specialised internet courses to help expand my knowledge of how best to treat patients online. Two months later, I was able to treat a child online, publishing success stories on Facebook," Mohammed continues. 

"Surprisingly, many parents and teachers then reached out to me to treat their children, many of whom suffer from speech disorders. From a simple Facebook post, I've become well known in Gaza for my services. Now my Facebook page is full of successful cases."

One day in 2016, a Syrian mother called Dalia contacted Mohammed asking for advice for her seven-year-old daughter, Israa. Mohammed hadn't dealt with anything like this before. "Hesitantly, I scheduled an appointment with her, quickly learning that Israa was unable to pronounce eight Arabic letters. I asked myself, am I able to treat such a case? Normally such a case requires face-to-face therapy sessions."

One day, Mohammed hopes to set up clinics throughout the Arab world to help all those affected by speech disorders [Mohammed Al-Hayek]
One day, Mohammed hopes to set up clinics throughout the Arab world to help all those affected by speech disorders [Mohammed Al-Hayek]

However, Mohammed quickly made up his mind. He would treat the girl. "I made up a novel treatment plan for her and started sessions the next day. Thank Allah, we made progress."

After the first three sessions, Israa was able to pronounce the letter س in Arabic. After around 24 sessions lasting two months, Israa was able to speak normally. "I didn't believe myself, I was over the moon, I cried with joy," Mohammed told The New Arab with pride beaming across his face. 

The mother, Dalia, published a Facebook post to thank him. Once again, the power of social media has meant many Syrian mothers have contacted Mohammed to treat their children. Since then, Mohammed has treated 100 Syrian children, most of them living in Turkey, seeing around four cases monthly. 

In a video call with The New Arab, Dalia told us that she had been following Mohammed on Facebook for a while before reaching out to him. "I went to many speech therapists in Lebanon, but I couldn't afford their costs. So I reached out to Mohammed to help Israa. He graciously accepted, offering to help Israa free of charge. May Allah bless him." In 2011, Dalia's family fled Syria with her husband and daughter Israa to Lebanon due to the Syrian Civil War.

Mohammed's services have become invaluable to communities suffering from the trauma of conflict, displacement and exile [Mohammed Al-Hayek]
Mohammed's services have become invaluable to communities suffering from the trauma of conflict, displacement and exile [Mohammed Al-Hayek]

"Unfortunately, due to the stress, Israa wasn't even able to pronounce her own name. Neither I nor her teachers were able to understand her. This worried me intensely," Dalia told The New Arab. "Mohammed was so gentle and kind throughout the sessions, asking us to do some exercises before and after the sessions to help her."

The reason for these exercises was that Mohammed was sometimes unable to attend sessions, due to temperamental internet access in Gaza, which often experiences power cuts and reduced internet speed. Whilst Israel has "5G" capacity, the West Bank has only been allowed "3G" recently, with the besieged enclave Gaza Strip only having "2G" capabilities. 

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Meeting Israa, she told The New Arab that she used to be very shy, and would avoid speaking at school. "But now, I speak confidently, and now my teacher now elects me to give class presentations." She has since excelled at school, receiving her second school honour last year. "I love Mohammed so much, one day I hope to meet him face-to-face to thank him for all he does."

Mohammed explained that there are many reasons for speech impediments and disorders in children, with physiological and psychological reasons particularly acute. "In the case of Gazan and Syrian children, the most common reason for speech disorders is war, which affects them severely."

With his two Palestinian colleagues, who live in Saudi Arabia and New Zealand respectively, Mohammed hopes one day to set up a specialised group on Facebook to help Syrian children. "I want to help Syrian refugees as much as I can, and become one of the best speech therapists in the Arab world."

This has also inspired Israa: "My dream is to be a speech therapist, just like Mohammed."

Heba Salim is a Palestinian journalist, writer and translator based in the Gaza Strip