ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Gift of Grace

The House of Grace in Haifa is rebuilding a broken Palestinian community.

In the dilapidated neighborhood of lower Haifa in Israel, the Arab community is being reborn. A renovated church building is at the heart of the revival. In this structure of stone, stucco walls, and archways are released prisoners, battered women, unwed mothers, and drug addicts. They are beginning new lives. The change is not easy for any of them. But they are given “not just one chance. We give them ten chances,” says Kamil Shehade. After several months in the House of Grace, many of its residents can return to the larger community.

House of Grace is like the home of an extended family. Men, women, and children laugh, sing Arab songs, and talk as they do their chores or relax after returning from factory jobs in industrialized Haifa. Kamil, his wife Agnes, their four children, some 15 residents, and several volunteers eat meals together in the simple kitchen. They take turns saying the blessing.

Many of the residents have been convicted of serious crimes, including murder. They have come to House of Grace afraid, frustrated, with very little self-esteem and no skills. Women residents have been ostracized by kin and society. Their lives are endangered by husbands or brothers determined to avenge family honor. Here they are welcomed.

Kamil and Agnes Shehade do not dwell on past sins or failures. This husband and wife have given their lives to help “the people without solutions” of Haifa. They are the founders and “parents” of House of Grace. “We start with the belief that these people are not lost cases,” Kamil says. “We accept them as they are.”

Residents of House of Grace are treated as equals, sharing space, food, and clothing with the Shehades. But most importantly, they share in Kamil and Agnes’s Christian love. “We are not rehabilitating. Here we just love,” Kamil says. “We just want to be the missing family, and that’s enough.”

Family is central to Arab values. The lack of one is devastating in the traditional Middle Eastern Arab society. The political, economic, and social upheaval which followed the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 destroyed the foundation of Haifa’s Arab community.

In the beginning of 1948, 80,000 Arabs lived in the city in a close-knit, flourishing, faith-centered society. By the end of the year, 78,000 had fled to the surrounding countries. Those that stayed were the poor, the elderly, the underprivileged – those who couldn’t escape. They were joined by displaced villagers from the surrounding rural areas of Galilee. This new Arab population congregated in downtown slums. Now they number more than 20,000.

With neither the dignity of work nor the support of the traditional family network, they were left to live in quiet desperation. The area of lower Haifa became more and more depressed. Drug abuse, alcoholism, crime, and prostitution flourished as families disintegrated and people lost touch with their religious roots.

About ten years ago, Kamil Shehade faced this disintegrated community as a young volunteer social worker. One family presented a shattering archetype of the people of the area. It had no means of support and struggled just to survive. The mother was divorced from an alcoholic husband who had physically abused her. She was caring for eight children alone. Her oldest son was in jail and unable to contribute to the family’s care.

Kamil provided food and clothing for them and visited the son behind bars. But the family’s sense of failure was so deep that the burdens seemed insurmountable. The mother committed suicide. When the eldest son heard the news, he took his own life. His charred body expired in Kamil’s arms.

In his grief, Kamil recognized that without community, there was despair. He felt called to help the desperate. His ministry would reach out especially to prisoners and their families. Kamil helped reunite released prisoners with their relatives. He helped those who had no family to ease their way back into the community. Those with no place to go he took into his own apartment until they could move on in confidence and hope.

The Greek Catholic bishop of Haifa encouraged Kamil’s work by sending him to Madonna House in Canada to study their rehabilitation methods for ex-prisoners. Kamil returned to Haifa with the dream of opening a home for former convicts. When he found his parish cautious about his idea, he put his ambitious goals aside while continuing to visit Israeli prisons and inmates’ families.

Then, about eight years ago, Kamil met Agnes Bieger, a soft-spoken Swiss lab technician. She was so impressed by Kamil’s explanation of the needs of the Palestinians in Haifa that she volunteered to work for handicapped children with the Daughters of Charity in Haifa.

After their marriage, they immediately shared lives of service. Agnes and Kamil began their married life in a three-room apartment with an ex-prisoner roommate. They wanted to offer a home to the many more people released from jail with no place to go.

In January 1981 the Melkite parish gave Kamil and Agnes the fallen-down Church of Mary. A government plan to “revitalize” lower Haifa called for it to be torn down. The Church fought for and won permission to renovate the structure. Kamil and Agnes took the first verse of Psalm 127 as their motto: “If God does not build the house, in vain the masons toil.”

The 1862 complex had been abandoned for more than 40 years. Renovations would cost $190,000. With money borrowed from his brothers and the labor of local volunteers, the Shehades worked 18 hours daily for ten months, with the faith and fervor of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

They christened the restored church, with an annex of living quarters, “House of Grace.” The Greek Catholic community responded to the enthusiasm of Agnes and Kamil by offering their services. The people of lower Haifa were learning to do something and to “stop crying” about their situation.

House of Grace became the center of Church and community activities and outreach. About 50 former prisoners, battered women, and those with no other place to go find a haven at the home each year. At the same time, several hundred hard-working though needy families receive food parcels and small cash gifts. Donated appliances, furniture, and clothing are redistributed to the poor. Villagers an find social and legal counseling at House of Grace.

In a land where the mixture of politics and religion tends to pull the society apart, House of Grace is saying “that every human is the face of God.” This message is bringing together people of different backgrounds and faiths. A Jewish baker donates 20,000 loaves of bread to needy families. Arab doctors and dentists provide free and low-cost services to families without health insurance. Through a school program that Kamil has begun, one-and-one-half tons of rice, sugar, and canned goods were collected from children and redistributed to the needy in Haifa.

The Shehades complement one another as they serve the indigent and follow God’s call to mend lives, families, and society. Kamil talks and acts hurriedly, emotionally. He is always on the go, solving emergency problems, coaching volunteers who work in outlying villages, and making his prison rounds. Agnes, on the other hand, is a soothing force for Kamil and House of Grace. With the women she has a gentle rapport that she gradually built. The Shehades’ four affectionate children – Anaya, Jamal, Thomas, and Stefan – bounce from lap to lap, in their own way helping ex-prisoners readjust to civilian life.

Kamil concentrates on “just loving” former inmates instead of “results.” His methods have accomplished statistical miracles. Only about 15 percent of House of Grace residents return to crime, compared with 83 percent of the released Israeli prison population as a whole.

The unwed mothers who come to House of Grace face special hardships. Although they never can go back to their families because of the cultural disgrace of their situation, they are not without hope. Last year three of these women married ex-prisoners, and the couples left House of Grace to start new lives in their own homes.

With House of Grace addressing more community problems each year, the need for workers and funding keeps increasing.

Two volunteers are essential to the success of the prison and community outreach programs.Stefan Maroun is coordinator of the rehabilitation programs for released prisoners in Haifa. Elias Sussan is a graduate in social work from Hebrew University. Funding that House of Grace could not do without comes from Western organizations, such as the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

With each accomplishment, Kamil wants to do more. He hopes that one day House of Grace will be self-sufficient. A small-scale toilet paper factory is part of how it may happen. It exists in a side room at House of Grace. Eventually it will employ four to eight residents in order to teach them job skills as well as covering many of the costs of running the home. Originally slowed by political red tape, the factory still managed to start providing about 50 schools, churches, and institutions with the brightly colored rolls of paper two years ago. Production moved into full swing after a government permit was received in April of 1988.

Another project has recently been proposed. It would give financial aid to top Arab university students studying in Israel and abroad, with the stipulation that they donate time to visiting inmates and needy families in Haifa and greater Galilee.

The Shehades have mustered an active network of volunteers who are eager to build up the Palestinian community in Haifa. Drastic cuts in funding by some European supporters of House of Grace have made their efforts more difficult. Yet the work still needs to be done.

When an old man with one leg shows up at House of Grace in crying need, when a family whose house burned to the ground has no place to stay, and when an 18-year-old girl who has been tied in a cave for eight months is brought to House of Grace, the Shehades accept them into their family. “We cannot refuse. These are our people,” Kamil says.

Kamil Shehade sees serving the needy as a privilege, not a sacrifice. “When you are living like Christ you are becoming an addict to selflessness,” the Greek Catholic of Haifa says. “When you get to the stage that you are always giving, you take the happiness of seeing a smile…. You take a happiness that no one can give to you.”

Lucinda Kidd, a freelance writer and photographer, recently returned from an extended visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories.

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