ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

This Way to the Ark

CNEWA’s Beirut office generously supports programs for Lebanon’s mentally and physically handicapped.

Call it the Ark in English, l’Arche in French, or Zawrak, its Arabic equivalent. Whatever you call it, this Lebanese community of the mentally and physically handicapped, and assistants called to serve, is a home away from home.

Day by day, step by step, the community’s members learn the joy of self-reliance, the satisfaction of achievement and the all-embracing love of God.

This way to the ark.

A salad-making project begins with a shopping excursion. An assistant takes Husana and Michael to a nearby open air market to buy fresh tomatoes and lemons, two of the ingredients needed for the salad. Then they must wash, cut, squeeze and open the cans of corn and peas. These are challenges for the handicapped whose eye-hand coordination makes even the simplest of tasks difficult. When Tony successfully completes a task, he proudly announces it – “I did it, I cut the lemon!”

Zawrak’s staff of 35 have worked out a program that judging from the smiles and enthusiasm has been very successful.

“We do not try to reproduce school activities nor treat the handicapped as children,” explains psychologist David Sahyoun.

Memories of school are unhappy; recollections of failure and mocking by other students and even teachers remain instilled in the memories of the handicapped. Thus at Zawrak, basic math and reading skills are presented as games so the handicapped disassociate them from their classroom experiences.

“Lebanese families are overprotective,” says Sahyoun. “They have a tendency of eternally treating their handicapped sons and daughters like children.” The community ages range from 18 to 47.

Such attitudes are as much a challenge for the assistants as they are for the handicapped. A simple hygiene project designed to raise awareness of tooth care was delayed because of parental resentment. The handicapped were asked to bring toothbrushes with them but day after day many left them behind. Later, the assistants learned the families had interpreted the project as an intrusion into a private matter.

On another occasion they were asked to bring in photos of their families. The collection revealed the unconscious shame and rejection that many families feel – their handicapped children were included in only a handful of the snaps.

Regaining a sense of dignity, developing talents and creativity, are major goals at Zawrak.

This philosophy began with Jean Vanier, a former Canadian naval officer and philosophy professor. In 1964 he purchased a dilapidated house in a French village and invited two handicapped men, Philippe and Raphael, to live with him.

This simple family has mushroomed into a worldwide federation boasting more than 80 communities, including ones in Erie, Penn., and Washington, D.C.

Roland Tamraz founded Zawrak in 1985, fashioning it after Vanier’s model. But establishing an atmosphere of fellowship, peace and personal awareness were uphill challenges for Tamraz and the community in a war-consumed Beirut.

Zawrak accepted rent-free premises from the Greek Catholic community even though it was located just inside Beirut’s violent Greenline. The sound of machinegun fire and the pounding of shells often intruded on the otherwise peaceful atmosphere. Elie, one of the handicapped, never let the violence rock the Zawrak boat. During one skirmish he winked and said, “I suppose they are beating their carpets again.” His quip brought smiles from even the most tense in the group.

In 1989 cross-city shelling sprees damaged several of the buildings. But in a spirit of determination the near disaster turned into a work project for Elie, Sami, Elias and Charles. These young men showed a knack for repair and quickly developed the skills of hole-patching, plastering and painting.

Heading this “task force” was a French priest, Pere Roger, a Little Brother of Jesus who has given 25 years of service to Lebanon. He hopes the men’s skills will improve until they can take on painting jobs in the neighborhood.

Inter-Christian battles in 1990 dealt an even harsher blow to the vulnerable community, and it was forced to abandon the premises. Again the Greek Catholic community came to the rescue and offered Zawrak a school evacuated during the fighting. Today both “campuses” are in use as repair work continues.

The best route to success has been the establishment of ateliers, or workshops. After careful evaluation of each person, David Sahyoun places the handicapped in activities that challenge but do not frustrate their abilities. The framing atelier keeps Caroline, Frederick and Mitri busy under the watchful eye of an assistant. “I must use my brain, not my silliness,” says Mitri as he backs a pastoral scene and then passes it on for the next step.

In an adjoining room another group makes plaques using copies of icons and other religious pictures. A number of families have ordered plaques as gifts for their children’s first communion.

A third workshop shows how Zawrak took to heart the proverb “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Roland Tamraz admits they had to start this project from scratch. No one knew anything about wax or wick and how to put them together, but the project suited Beirut. Zawrak needed to produce something marketable. Electricity rationing – or months without any at all – put candles on housewives’ shopping lists.

Over 400 pounds of quality basic candles are produced daily. But competition – not in quantity but in beauty – comes from the group making decorative candles. Christmas trees, Valentine hearts, Easter eggs and rabbits line the shelves waiting for their seasonal turn on the domestic and foreign markets. Teams work together to decorate fancy six-sided candles with dried flowers. After a final dip in wax to fix and seal the flowery design the candles are carefully packaged by another team. Pride in their work is obvious as they stop to admire and count the candles they have completed.

Two new ateliers are on the drawing board: cushion stuffing and packaging, and tire repair. Pere Roger, a real hands-on man, rolls up his sleeves at the prospect of new challenges. His enthusiasm never fails to capture the community.

No work without reward is a Zawrak principle. Each of the handicapped receives a monthly salary according to his or her ability and output. These salaries are only a small part of the community’s expenses, which amount to approximately $1,875 annually per handicapped person. With no government assistance and only small fees paid by some of the families, Zawrak is dependent on contributions and grants from the Pontifical Mission and several private, foreign benefactors. Tamraz hopes that a program of sponsorship with Americans or Europeans will alleviate Zawrak’s $100,000 deficit.

Work in the ateliers, awareness activities, cooking and conversation keep the handicapped creatively busy from the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon. Special occasions such as birthdays are celebrated with cake and soft drinks and several rounds of “Happy Birthday” in its universal language, English.

Quieter moments come during prayer, right before lunch. “Let us hope that the young wheat we put in our hearts will grow and expand into love,” the community prays in Arabic.

Thursday is a special day at Zawrak. Pere Roger changes his work clothes for vestments to celebrate the Eucharist. The community receives the Eucharist together. All participate in their own way; all are free to express concern for a loved one who is dead, ill or abroad.

Elie’s prayer reflects the tension at home: “Some day we will have a home at Zawrak for those who can’t live with their families.”

Nadia prays for l’Arche around the world. Her prayer to make the pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, came true last year.

Many of the handicapped worshippers cannot read. But during the liturgy the prayer book is held with respect and care – be it upside down or sideways. A good number know the liturgy by heart.

Watching the handicapped grow, their memories of rejection fading, Roland Tamraz, the community’s director, sums it up: “They simply become someone else.”

Lebanon has an estimated 50,000 people regarded as mentally or physically handicapped. Less than a thousand, primarily children and adolescents, have access to specialized schools. For adults there are just three centers whose combined facilities can accommodate only 150 people. Those who can find work receive meager salaries and often endure ill treatment. The more severely handicapped are placed, or as Tamraz says, “parked” in psychiatric hospitals.

Conversation never lags. During one, things were put into their proper Lebanese prospective with the offering of a cup of thick coffee. A firm “No” to the question, “Are you married?” aroused the group’s interest and soon the pros and cons of marriage were discussed.

The handicapped praised marriage, but many cast doubts on the qualifications of those who enter it.

“Marriage needs two people who can get along, who can agree with one another,” contributed Sami. “Raising a child isn’t easy,” he continued. “There is a lot of aazaab,” an Arabic word that covers the crying, fussing and other problems related to child rearing. As each person talks the others listen attentively.

God loves all creation, especially the poor and the weak. Zawrak is Christian, its philosophy is centered on Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist and in each human being. However, the community is open to all – Christian, Jew or Muslim.

With love and understanding, Zawrak welcomes aboard those ignored, rejected and condemned to the margins of society.

This way to the ark.

Marilyn Raschka is a freelance journalist living and working in Beirut.

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