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ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

They Call It the House of Grace

In Israel, a house offers a new beginning for former prisoners

with photographs by Ilene Perlman

On 1 April 2019, Abdullah Igbari walked out of prison a free man. After having served a sentence of 28 years and four months for murder — nearly half his life — he was keen to steer clear of drugs and other temptations that could once again cost him his freedom. He realized, however, that he could not succeed on his own. And so he found the House of Grace, the only halfway house serving Arabic-speaking men released from prison in Israel.

“I chose to come here because I knew I would get the help I needed,” says the 59-year-old, relaxing in the compound’s scenic stone courtyard after a long day at work as a tailor.

Although entering a halfway house was not a requirement of his probation, the assistance he has received has proven crucial to his successful reintegration into society.

After nearly three decades in prison, Mr. Igbari did not know how to use a cell phone or an automated bank machine. His driver’s license had expired long ago. But with the help of the house’s staff, he has been able to acclimate, find a job and function in a society he had no longer recognized.

Addicted to drugs for 30 years, Mr. Igbari says he has been “clean” for 12 and intends to stay that way.

“We’re still weak,” he says, referring to the dangers posed by temptations he and the other former inmates face — especially recovering addicts.

“This is my family here, my support system.”

Established in the early 1980’s by the late Kamil Shehade and his wife, Agnes, House of Grace is a refuge for those trying to reclaim their lives. While the facility is non-sectarian, it is guided by the Christian principles of love, forgiveness, the capacity for change and, ultimately, redemption. Here, those in dire need can find a sense of home and family.

“My parents were inspired by the words in Mathew 25: ‘I was … in prison and you visited me,’” says Jamal Shehade, one of the couple’s five adult children, who now serves as House of Grace’s director.

Mr. Shehade and his siblings were reared by his parents at House of Grace. From an early age, he recalls, interacting with the former prisoners “was part of our lives.” 

“I don’t remember when we children realized they had once been in prison; I only remember that it was normal — we were happy, and we felt there was something special in the house.”

There were times, however, when the residents’ needs forced Kamil and Agnes to cancel plans with their children.

“I sometimes felt upset, but understood my parents were doing important work,” Mr. Shehade says of his devout parents, who were encouraged by Archbishop Maximos Salloum, then the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Akka, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee, to learn more about the work of the Madonna House Apostolate in Canada. Founded in 1947 by Catherine Doherty and her husband Eddie, members of the Madonna House community live simply, centered on the Eucharist, dedicating their lives to witnessing the Gospel through working with the poor and the marginalized.

Kamil and Agnes began inviting newly released prisoners into their home in the early 1980’s, wanting to help them integrate back into society. With the support of the archbishop, the couple founded the House of Grace in a long-derelict parish compound of the Melkite Catholic community that they lovingly restored — including the compound’s historic church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Over the years the house’s mission expanded to include not only the rehabilitation of released prisoners, but also the well-being of Christian and Muslim families from the poorest neighborhoods of Haifa, a mixed Arab-Jewish city in northern Israel, and its neighboring Arab villages.

During the school year, House of Grace runs an after-school enrichment program for at-risk Arab children and teens, as well as a two-week summer camp.

House of Grace also provides food packages, counseling and emergency assistance to struggling families, and runs a thrift shop open to all.

Many of the people in the house’s social welfare program are women in difficult marriages or who are bringing up their children alone.

“Some have been abused, some reside in shelters,” says Lina Zreik, a social worker in charge of counseling and logistics at the house. “Some don’t speak Hebrew well or need help to receive the rights they should be receiving. All have social and financial problems.”

Ms. Zreik refers them to the appropriate government agencies and writes letters on their behalf.

Many of their children attend the house’s after-school program, which has the added benefit of keeping them off the street and away from the negative influence of gangs, she adds.

Mr. Shehade calls the house a “bridge” between the prison and the community.

“During the time they’re here,” he explains, “they are encouraged to find a job, reestablish contact with their families, learn how to deal with debts they may have. We also teach them the skills needed to deal with the challenges of daily normal life and prevent them from running away from these challenges through drugs and alcohol.”

During the first nine months of the 21-month program, residents live at the house while holding down full-time jobs. They must return by 5 p.m., dine together and clean the communal kitchen and living quarters. Once a week they meet privately with their counselor, and three times a week they gather for group therapy. They also undergo regular drug testing.

For residents, the return to family and community is a gradual process.

“About 50 percent of our residents are married with children,” says Elias Sussan, a social worker who directs the house’s rehabilitation program. “The first month they cannot go home, and after that they can go home every other weekend, eventually moving to once a week.”

If anything, he adds, the following 12 months are even more demanding.

“In prison and during the first phase at the house they are somewhat protected; they’re not being influenced by friends and family. During the second phase they have to assume the responsibilities their wives carried out alone. They need to learn to be fathers with full-time jobs.”

Once those who have successfully completed the first phase leave, they are required to adhere to a strict curfew and return to House of Grace once a week for individual therapy and drug testing.

The House of Grace is guided by love, forgiveness, change and, ultimately, redemption.

About 70 percent of the house’s residents stay out of prison and off drugs for the duration of the program.

“The prison rehabilitation authority says this is a very high success rate,” Mr. Shehade notes.

“They say the rate is about 50 percent at other facilities and 30 to 35 percent for those who don’t go to a halfway house.”

Muhammad Sbeh is one of House of Grace’s most compelling success stories. He spent a total of 13 years in prison, spread across three periods of incarceration, for selling drugs and guns.

“Had I not come here I’d be dead, in prison or in a mental hospital,” Mr. Sbeh, 51, says bluntly.

With the staff’s encouragement, he finally cut off all ties with his criminal associates, participated in therapy sessions and worked diligently at his construction job.

Then, in a move that surprised even the hostel’s most experienced staffers, Mr. Sbeh took courses to become a certified addictions counselor.

Today Mr. Sbeh works as a social adviser to former prisoners and youth at House of Grace.

His eyes fill with tears as he recalls the first time he was entrusted with counseling duties.

“I cried. It was emotional because no one had every believed in me before.

“It strengthened my resolve to be a role model. When I sit with them they see that if I could do it, they can too.”

Several times a month, Mr. Sbeh stays overnight, acting as a “house father” figure.

“I ask them about their day at work, whether they have any problems they’re trying to solve. It’s all about communication,” he says.

Ali Abu Aish, who has spent 12 of his 31 years in prison, says Mr. Sbeh’s journey from prisoner to counselor inspires him every day.

“He understands where we’re coming from because he lived it,” Mr. Abu Aish says. “He was in prison longer than I was, and here he is, helping us.

“He really is a role model.”

On a recent summer day, as the former prisoners work at their respective jobs, the youths attending the house’s summer camp conduct science experiments under the watchful eyes of a teacher.

On other days, the campers have tried their hands at baking, bowling, swimming, various sports and board games, and even riding in go-carts.

Ten-year-old Zahra, who attends the House of Grace summer camp with her two brothers, says it has “saved” her summer.

“If I wasn’t here I’d be playing games on my phone all day, every day. It’s really fun doing science experiments,” she says as she and the other children add food coloring to distinguish the contents of different test tubes.

Muhammad, an 11-year-old camper, says he loves playing soccer at camp.

“I have friends here. At home I’d be playing on my Xbox.”

The team at the House of Grace hopes the values instilled at the camp and the after-school program will prevent the children from falling prey to the kind of negative influences that sent the hostel’s older residents to prison.

“Their parents can’t help with things like tutoring, which leads many kids to drop out of school, which leads to crime. It’s all connected,” Mr. Shehade says.

He emphasizes that the support House of Grace provides to some 400 families is more than simple charity.

“Though we provide financial support, we recognize that it can make families dependent. So we help them through the process necessary to stand on their own feet — to find a job or deal with problems within the family by speaking to our social workers or attending workshops.”

In many cases, parents may find themselves too consumed with survival, or lacking skills to cope with certain parenting challenges. Alcohol, drugs and other self-destructive behaviors, while bringing momentary comfort, only exacerbate their problems.

“I wish we could run the summer camp for additional weeks, but we lack the resources,” Mr. Shehade says, watching as children kick a soccer ball and play tag.

Indeed, for all the ambitions expressed in its daily operation, the House of Grace operates with limited resources, a lean budget and a great many prayers. The Israeli government provides 40 percent of the house’s budget for the rehabilitation of prisoners, but pays nothing toward its other services. Catholic Near East Welfare Association and other charitable organizations and individuals, international and local, provide the house with the necessary funds and supplies to enable the community to continue its service to the marginalized of Haifa. However, it is the prayers of its supporters on which the House of Grace relies.

“We rely on this support,” Mr. Shehade says. “Miracles are happening here and for us to be able to carry out our ministry we need not only financial support but prayers that our existence as Christians in the Holy Land can continue.”

Although geared toward Israel’s disproportionately poor and underserved Arabic-speaking community, House of Grace also helps its Jewish neighbors receive services by referring them to the appropriate government agencies or charity organizations.

“We don’t make a distinction between Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews. We are open to everybody,” Mr. Shehade stresses.

Christians comprise just 2 percent of Israel’s population and even less in the West Bank and Gaza.

“We strive to be a living example of what a Christian person is,” the director says.

Janet Matar, the 83-year-old Anglican volunteer who runs the house’s thrift shop, voices the same sentiment.

“I don’t ask who is who,” Matar says of her shop’s varied customers, who include people who cannot afford to pay anything. “What is important is to give.”

“For many,” remarks the pastor of the city’s Melkite Greek Catholic community, “it is the home of the Good Samaritan.”

Archimandrite Agapios George Abu Sa’ada believes the House of Grace is truly living the Gospel, as “it receives every human being regardless of his religion, race and gender.”

Amir Kouni, 48, who has been in and out of prisons for selling drugs and weapons, expressed gratitude for the acceptance he has received at the house.

“This is why I came here. I don’t want to go back to prison. I want to be an honest person.”

Mr. Kouni, who was completing the last day of his nine-month stay, says he has undergone a “reckoning.”

“We sit and talk in group therapy. In drama therapy I learned not to keep everything inside. I thought I knew everything but it turns out, I don’t. I admitted that I didn’t raise my three daughters. They suffered. So did my wife.”

In a life marked with regret and shame, Mr. Kouni now shares a cause for pride.

“I did something good here, during these nine months at the halfway house. It’s a start.”

Jerusalem-based journalist Michele Chabin has written for USA TODAY, National Catholic Register, Jewish Journal and ONE.

The CNEWA Connection

CNEWA has long worked closely to support and uplift those on the margins in Palestine and Israel. House of Grace is one more example of that — but it is far from the only one.

As we have reported over the years in the pages of this magazine, CNEWA has supported and funded church outreach ministries to migrants and refugees, particularly domestic workers from the Philippines and Ethiopia, and asylum seekers from Africa and elsewhere.

To be a part of this important work in the land we call “holy,” call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

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