Gainesville-Qalqilya Partnership Opens Door to Educational Opportunities for Deaf Students

The Gainesville, Florida and Qalqilya, Palestinian Territories sister city partnership recently made a unique youth exchange possible. In early April, two Deaf students, five hearing students, the headmaster of the Deaf School, and a Deaf teacher from Qalqilya visited Oak Hall School in Gainesville, Florida. Although delegations have traveled back and forth between the two sister cities several times in the past, this was the first educational youth exchange of its kind.
In preparation for the Qalqilya delegation’s visit to Gainesville, Oak Hall’s American Sign Language teacher, Cynthia DuPont, organized regular Skype calls to communicate with the visiting Deaf students and teacher. Once the delegation arrived, the students participated in a number of engaging activities and events and stayed with homestay families. Some highlights included painting a mural on the 1,120-foot-long 34th Street graffiti wall, performing together in an interactive musical event, taking a trip to Disney World, visiting the Atlantic Ocean (most had never seen the sea before), and taking a tour of the Santa Fe School of the Deaf.

The homestay experience helped both the Palestinian students and their American counterparts get a true glimpse into one another’s daily lives. Homestay parent, LaDonna Vieweg, reflected on what she learned from the experience, “It was a pleasure hosting Saleh and Hussam in our home. Despite growing up a world away, I was amazed to discover how similar they are to my own teenage boys in so many ways.” While in classes at Oak Hall, it was a bit of challenge for the students to communicate at first, since Arabic and American Sign Languages differ, however the groups quickly learned to understand one another.

“Communicating with the deaf students…was as easy as smiling and giving them a hug. Sometimes we would use the translators to ask each other questions but usually we got along really well using body motions,” explained Oak Hall student and homestay hostess Antonia Neel. “There’s no substitute for that personal, person-to-person interaction,” notes Mr. Kalishman, “now that they’ve met in person, they can continue to stay in touch.” Oak Hall students will continue to Skype with their friends in Qalqilya, and potentially partake in an outbound exchange in the future.

With 43,000 Deaf people currently living in the Palestinian territories, only 700 have access to schooling and Deaf students are only able to receive education up to the 9th grade level.  Sister City Program of Gainesville-Kfar Saba/Qalqilya has hence decided to act and advocate for the Deaf community in their sister city by making a commitment to raise $350,000 to build an addition to the current Qalqilya Deaf School. This addition will be designed to accommodate 10-12th grade classes, therefore allowing Deaf students to not only finish high school but to have the potential to continue on to higher education.

The Qalqilya Municipality has donated land and utilities for the school, so the funds raised will go toward building the infrastructure and providing school supplies and staff. If Gainesville can raise $350,000 by January 15, 2015, their funds will be doubly matched, donating an extra $700,000 to the project.

With the support and active involvement of the Gainesville community, parents, and the teachers and students of Oak Hall School, the group raised $4,500 during the Qalqilya delegation’s visit. Members of the Sister City Program of Gainesville are working to strategize a push of fundraising efforts so they can meet the January deadline for matched funding.

Once funds are raised, Gainesville members hope to be involved in the set up and building processes for the new school. Qalqilya students hope to use business as a means to raise money for sustainable school programming. One idea is to open a gift shop with items made by Deaf and Blind students, and another is to grow food in a community garden to serve at the school.

Involving the community on the local level in Gainesville has allowed for great global outreach, cultural awareness, and growth to take place between and within sister cities, promising a better future for the Deaf and hearing communities alike. 

For more information on building plans, fundraising updates, and the Sister City Program of Gainesville, visit: and