Residents at work in the courtyard area. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Kamil and Agnes Shehade. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
A resident puts the finishing touch on a toy made for a kindergarten classroom. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Where in the Israeli city of Haifa can the poor and disadvantaged go? To whom can newly released prisoners turn? How can drug addicts kick their habit? Many find help at the House of Grace, a unique community that gives hope and succor to those in despair.
Located on a busy road in central Haifa, the House of Grace is literally an oasis of calm in a sea of confusion. Building construction almost surrounds the compound. Trucks roll continually and workmen toil daily in the scorching sun.
The House of Grace was established by Kamil Shehade, an Israeli Arab and a member of the local Greek Melkite Catholic community. He and his Swiss-born wife, Agnes, are the pivot on which the House of Grace revolves, the core of stability that the large community of staff, residents and volunteers needs.
When the Greek Melkite Catholic bishop gave Kamil the site in January 1981, the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary that was its core had been abandoned. After fighting off plans by the municipality to demolish it, Kamil and Agnes faced the herculean task of renovating the church and making habitable the remaining buildings in the complex. The basic work took 10 months and the labor of many volunteers. Kamil sold his decorating business and with $3,000, his wife and first child moved into the House of Grace in 1982.
Kamil firmly believes God prepared the ground for this apostolate. He had spent 10 years praying for guidance as to how to help his community. With the support of his bishop he had traveled to Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario, Canada, to learn more about the lay apostolate. He had already worked for many years as a volunteer social worker and was only too familiar with the severe social problems of Haifas impoverished Israeli Arab community. He was determined to do something and believed his own Greek Melkite Catholic community (which is the largest Christian community in Haifa) should be at the heart of it.
Our idea was to help society to live the Gospel, through the church, from the church, Kamil explains.
Kamils dream was to help local Arabs find solutions to their own problems.
Why should the church abroad always do everything for us? Why not help ourselves? he asked.
There are now some 22 residents at the House of Grace, plus the Shehade family and seven additional staff. Elias Susan, a social worker, explains that six of the residents were former prisoners, another six were homeless and four were arrested but gained permission to live there while awaiting trial.
The rest are social cases, people who have difficulty coping with life. Elias has to work especially hard with these. They need help to become independent. This sometimes takes a lot of time.
One such resident is Walid, one of seven brothers and sisters whose parents had little time for their children.
Life was harsh for all of us, he recalls.
Walid dropped out of school and roamed the streets during the day, returning home only to sleep.
I felt nobody loved me or wanted me, he says.
He took to crime to support his increasing addiction to drugs and never dreamed of doing an honest days work.
Despite his wayward lifestyle, however, he married and fathered three children, but I could not support them, he recalls sadly. By then he was deep into heroin. It was after his arrest and imprisonment that he was directed to the House of Grace. There he found the kindness, love and care he had never encountered as a child. He has been there now for more than six months, participating to the full in community life.
A former resident let us call him Efraim was in such an emotional and financial state after his marriage failed that he saw suicide as the only escape. He had already chosen the spot where he would carry out his plan: the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But gradually he changed his mind. He walked from the Sea of Galilee to Haifa, then walked south to Tel Aviv, surviving on leftovers and sleeping on the beach. After several months, Efraim realized suicide was not the solution. Back in Haifa he contacted the city welfare department, which referred him to the House of Grace.
He remained there for three months with people of all backgrounds ex-convicts, ex-drug addicts and the homeless. As a Jew, he found it difficult at first to get along with the mainly Arab residents.
During this time I learned many new things about myself and about life in general, Efraim remembers. I began to regain my self-confidence and to rebuild my whole personality.
He has now returned to his job as an electrical engineer and lives in his own apartment.
I have a new family now, he says, the Shehade family and the House of Grace, with all its staff and residents, whom I shall always cherish.
In addition to its residents, the House of Grace helps literally thousands of poor families in the Haifa area, giving them food or Christmas parcels; perhaps helping them write letters, especially to government or municipal agencies.
It is difficult for people in our community to ask for help, says Elias. We emphasize their dignity. We consider them part of a big family.
Last year the House of Grace organized four summer camps for 3,500 schoolchildren who would not otherwise have had a vacation.
The House of Grace also helps finance the education of gifted pupils whose parents cannot afford the tuition fees of local church-run schools. In addition, about 230 college students both here and abroad receive some contribution, however small on condition that they return to work in their home community.
Kamil established the House of Grace with little support, moral or financial. Now he finds himself hailed by the civil authorities; indeed, in 1990 he received a prize from the President of Israel.
I was the first Christian Israeli Arab to win such a prize, Kamil says.
Such praise is rarely translated into hard cash, however. So far the state pays only the costs associated with the rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. Kamil faces a constant battle to find funds; only careful stewardship has kept the annual deficit below one percent of the operating costs. CNEWAs Jerusalem office has been a reliable supporter of Kamils work for many years.
Local welfare authorities in Haifa regularly refer clients to Kamil, who seeks to help everyone, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim or of no faith at all.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has also brought new responsibility: Kamils advice has been sought by the Palestinian Authority and he often travels to Gaza and areas of the West Bank under Palestinian control. He has helped the Palestinian Authority set up a rehabilitation program for ex-prisoners that teaches them the trade of tile-making.
Kamil knows there is always work to be done.
I dream of having several houses like this around Galilee, he says with passion.
I dream of building up trust in the church and its leadership, so the local church can work to solve local problems. I want to see the Christian Israeli Arab community strengthened in Galilee, to keep Christians from leaving and to keep the whole world from forgetting them.
Felix Corley is a London-based journalist.