At first glance, the Atfaluna restaurant in Gaza City looks like any other — a space for locals to enjoy a simple meal. However, there’s a difference: Nearly all its staff are deaf.
Inside, customers chat with each other and scan the menu, but when it comes to ordering, their requests are taken down by waiters who communicate in sign language, and their meals are all cooked by deaf chefs.
It’s a one-of-a-kind concept in Gaza and the brainchild of a local organization called Atfaluna — Arabic for “Our Children” — which works to improve the lives of the territory’s deaf.
The project has the twin goals of raising awareness about the needs and capabilities of the deaf, while giving the community a way to earn a living in a place where unemployment stands at 45 percent.
Ahmed Dahman, expressing himself shyly through a sign language translator, described how working at the restaurant has changed his life.
“It gave me a sense of security regarding my future and self-dependency because job opportunities were virtually non-existent before this,” he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of support and cooperation from people,” he said. “A lot of them expressed their interest in learning sign language.”
For Dahman and others employed at the restaurant, where sign language letters decorate the walls, Atfaluna is a rare opportunity for work.
Until a few months ago, education opportunities for the deaf in Gaza only ran to ninth grade, with no secondary or university level education available.
A new secondary school has just opened, and Atfaluna is working with universities to make courses available for the deaf, but most working-age members of the community find themselves with few marketable skills.
“There is a real shortage of jobs for deaf people in Gaza. Of course they are at a big disadvantage because of the educational shortages,” said Dalia Abu Amr of Atfaluna.
Diners enter through an elaborate arabesque doorway above which hangs the restaurant’s name written in white on a black background — in English, Arabic and sign language.
Inside, a hostess in a traditionally-embroidered Palestinian gown guides people to their table. Handicrafts made in Atfaluna’s job creation programs are also available for sale.
The fare on offer ranges from Middle Eastern staples like hummus and baba ghanoush to fried fish, chicken or curry dishes.
“We came here to see the place,” said Shahd al-Iyla, a 21-year-old student dining with a friend. “It was nice, we would love to come here to offer moral support, so we will come again.”
Abu Amr said 12 of the restaurant’s 14 staff are deaf. The only exceptions are the chef and the accountant, who answers the phone to take reservations and delivery orders.
“The team of 12 deaf workers received culinary and hospitality training,” Abu Amr said. The project hopes “to assimilate the deaf in Gaza into society and provide them with work opportunities.”
Around 1.5 percent of Gazans over the age of five have some form of hearing disability, according to Atfaluna, but the disability still carries a stigma.
“No one welcomes the idea of a deaf person working in Gaza,” said 35-year-old Niveen al-Quqa, as she garnished a dish about to leave the kitchen.
She took art classes and sewing lessons in a bid to find work, but until the restaurant opened, she had had no success.
Now she is one of five women employed at Atfaluna — four in the kitchen and one working as a waitress.