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Hope Kindled in Bethany

A L’Arche community in the West Bank offers a haven for the area’s mentally challenged.

Like so many Palestinian towns, Bethany, a hilly arid place not far east of Jerusalem, is blistered with signs of the intifada up and down its steep, dusty inclines. Stores are shuttered up in the afternoon. Many side streets are blocked off by the military with walls of stacked oil drums filled with cement to cut off rebel routes of escape. There are broken houses and vacant lots piled with garbage and twisted pieces of junk, just some evidence of the breakdown in public services. Very young children by the road run alongside a passing vehicle with foreigners, saluting them with “V” signs. Though it is probably beyond their understanding, nationalistic vigor has trickled down even to these children, but it has not yet diminished the luster of their smiles. There is still room for hope and happiness in their hearts.

On one hilltop in Bethany, Beit al-Rafiq, a 35-year-old Muslim named Jamil quoted passages from the Koran in thanksgiving for the opening in January of a l’Arche residence for men, a place he and three other physically and mentally handicapped Palestinians could at last call home. For Jamil, Elias, Saaber and Wassim, the start of the new year was the beginning of a new life in the same hills where Christ raised Lazarus from the dead.

In the West Bank institution where he had been living, Elias, a 38-year-old Syrian Orthodox Christian with Down’s Syndrome, had been regarded something like a pack animal, such was his strength and so poor was the regard given him because of his handicap. Saaber, an 18-year-old also mentally handicapped and unable to walk, might be left on a balcony all day long with no therapy, given no attention, while six-year-old Wassim, abandoned since birth, languished alone in a crib in a dark room. Like Saaber, Wassim had received virtually no therapy or exercise, and he has the appearance of a three-year-old.

Along with several local women, the four have been able to realize something of their self worth in daily sessions at Beit al-Rafiq, the only l’Arche community in the Middle East. It opened in 1985, in part because of the lack of alternative services in the West Bank. A small workshop was started in 1987 to provide a place where the handicapped members of the community and other handicapped people from the neighborhood could develop their capacities and grow to feel useful and creative in a world which often denies the contributions they can make.

Until the recent completion of a men’s residence, Wassim and the handicapped men returned each day to an institution, and the unbridled happiness they shared at Beit al-Rafiq would all but vanish. Each time they returned to the home, Saaber, who can only speak in words and phrases, would implore the l’Arche volunteers: “Boukra,” the Arabic word for “tomorrow.”

Jean Vanier, a former Canadian naval officer and philosophy professor, founded l’Arche in 1964, welcoming Phillippe and Raphael, two mentally handicapped men from a nearby institution, into a little home in Trosly-Breuil, a village in northern France. Today there are more than 90 l’Arche (the Ark) communities throughout the world, each established on the principle that every person, handicapped or not, “has a unique and mysterious value.” In this international federation of Communities, stretching from Burkina Faso to Brazil, handicapped people and those who help them work and share their lives together.

According to its charter, the members of l’Arche also believe that “a person who is wounded in the capacity for autonomy and in the mind is capable of great love which the spirit of God can call forth, and we believe that God loves each one in a special way because of this very poverty.”

Unfortunately, many of the handicapped are rejected, without work, without homes or are shut up in psychiatric hospitals. In addition to providing care, l’Arche seeks to develop in society “a greater sense of justice and brotherly concern toward all.”

For l’Arche assistants, living and working with the handicapped is a lesson in love, an experience from which they have as much to gain as the needy they help. According to Jean Vanier, “We discover the immense joy God wants for us by meeting Jesus in the poorest, the weakest and the most broken.”

L’Arche communities like Beit al-Rafiq are financed in a variety of ways. In richer countries many receive state assistance. In poorer countries the communities try to find or develop productive work which helps them financially, but most continue to need financial assistance. Chairs and tables for the men’s residence were donated by local churches. The Jerusalem office of our sister organization, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, is currently providing a $6,000 two-year grant to Beit al-Rafiq.

From February 1987 to April 1989, the Belt al-Rafiq workshop was located in the house where the community lives. When the workshop began Jamil, Elias, Saaber and Wassim started participating on a regular basis. An American assistant, Rick Hatem of Columbus, Ohio, also became the first man to join the community. Rick had no l’Arche experience before Beit al-Rafiq, and came to live and work here by chance. Of Syrian heritage, he came to Jerusalem initially to familiarize himself with Arabic.

The ages and abilities of those coming from outside the home and those living in the community are diverse. Workshop activities take into account the needs of each individual and time is divided between physiotherapy, training in personal hygiene, educational activities and, for the oldest members of the community, work projects.

Rula, an 18-year-old girl, and Siham, a 37-year-old woman, have been living in the community with one Palestinian and three French female volunteers. Another teenage girl, Ghadir, lives with her family but spends time in the community each week. Rick was recently joined at the men’s residence by Ronald Zwaan, a Dutch volunteer who had been with l’Arche in France for a year. Another Palestinian woman works with the community part-time, and it is hoped to that more Palestinians will share the vision of l’Arche and join the community.

Greeting cards produced in the workshop during a six-month period last year generated about $500. A portion of this went directly to the handicapped to give them a sense of accomplishment, and the remainder has gone toward educational costs. The handicaps are profound, however, and the money generated by the workshop certainly cannot answer financial needs. The value of the workshop is the sense of self-esteem it generates.

“Luck has smiled upon us,” wrote Francoise Lagand, the director of the community, describing the new men’s residence. “We hope, in the near future, to receive two more people; a little 12 year-old girl who can neither speak nor walk. Her eyes sparkle with life as she waits in the hospital. The other woman will be a companion for Siham, able to talk and share with her.” Her Christmas wish was that “this little Arche will be a glimmer of hope, of love and of peace for all who come to warm themselves here.”

Thomas McHugh is editor of Catholic Near East magazine and the publications coordinator of the Association.

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