Lebanon’s Developmentally Disabled

BEIRUT (CNS) — With his ready smile and engaging conversation skills, 35-year-old Frederic possesses all the qualities needed to be an unofficial ambassador of Message de Paix (Message of Peace) center in Lebanon.

Nestled in the mountain town of Bikfaya about 15 miles northeast of Beirut, the center is a light of hope, offering a bright world of opportunities for the developmentally disabled. It boasts a candle-making operation and a working kitchen, where individuals learn the value of teamwork.

“I make all kinds of candles — round, square, big, small, red, blue and yellow. All kinds. I love this work so much. It’s very important to me,” Frederic proudly told a recent visitor.

Before he became part of Message de Paix, Frederic stayed at home with nothing to do.

“I had no work,” he recalled.

Helping disabled individuals become part of society and having a purpose in life is a primary mission of the center, which was founded in 1996 and operates under the patronage of Maronite Auxiliary Bishop Guy-Paul Noujaim of Beirut. Melkite Bishop Joseph Kallas of Beirut and Jbeil has provided the space — a former Catholic school — where the center has operated rent-free since 2008.

Many of the center’s income-generating projects have received funding from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Message de Paix is a model of coexistence, where Christian and Muslims work together, learning lessons in cooperation and the value of developing real life skills.

“We help them to be active and responsible, to be part of decisions,” operations manager George Nehme said of the center’s 70 participants, who range in age from 16 to 60. He said the 18 staff members offer encouragement, assistance and, most of all, love.

Frederic and his colleagues were busy preparing for Message de Paix’s Dec. 4-26 Christmas bazaar. Items from a separate Plexiglas company at the center — it helps recovering drug addicts learn new skills — were also sold at the annual bazaar.

During last year’s bazaar, 1,000 candles were quickly sold during the opening day. The center’s decorative votives also are popular throughout the year for weddings, Valentine’s Day and Easter. Parents often choose the votives as souvenir gifts for family and friends to mark the birth of a child or a child’s first Communion.

In the candle-making room, rows of molds filled with melted wax, each with a wick in the center, cooled. Nearby, Pierre, 23, cut small cubes of green wax that will be used in brilliantly multicolored decorative Christmas candles as Mohammed, 29, cleaned and perfected the creations, readying them for the big sale.

Down the hall, candle designs encased in gel inside small glasses were produced. Pierre, 27, created colorful waves by alternating layers of pink, green and blue sand. Recently made items drying on the worktable included glasses adorned with miniature Christmas and garden scenes as well as tiny icons of Jesus, Mary and Lebanon’s beloved saints, Charbel, Rafqa and Hardini.

In another room, a small group of individuals who are more developmentally challenged were immersed in making cardboard crafts. Fadia, 36, paused from her task of folding Message de Paix brochures to tell Nehme, “I love you,” then blew three kisses to him.

Downstairs in the kitchen, other participants prepared lunch. Josephine, 52, and Gretta, 49, carefully peeled cloves of garlic, fulfilling orders placed by restaurants for an ingredient so essential to Lebanese cuisine.

“This is training them to be able to work, to have the patience to keep at a task,” Nehme said. “At the same time, they feel that society needs them.”

Because everyone in the program returns home each night, the staff members strive to involve parents so they, too, can actively participate in the new skills their son or daughter learns.

During a recent gathering of parents in a cozy meeting room, their children, the newest group enrolled in the center’s programs, offered them cookies and cake.

Holding up a drawing of a wheelbarrow, social worker Anita Khoury explained to the parents that just as cement is needed to construct a building, the youth and young adults at the center are learning the virtues necessary for building a society.

“What characteristics are we putting into our wheelbarrow?” she asked the participants.

Responses came eagerly: “To love each other.” “To be sociable.” “To be generous.” “I took initiative.” “Cooperating with each other.” “Happiness.” “I love everyone!”

“We are strong,” concluded Tendresse, 24, raising her fists in a victory stance. “When we want something, we can do it!” she said, eliciting a chorus of cheers from her fellow teammates.

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