ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Wish Granted

Shining success of a Jordanian center for rehabilitation

What would you do if one day you found yourself in a faraway land married to a prince who could make your every wish come true? For most, it is unlikely that opening a rehabilitation center for the physically challenged would top any list of such wishes.

Yet opening this kind of center is exactly what Princess Majda Raad of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan wished for. However, the success of the Al-Hussein Society for the Rehabilitation of the Physically Challenged (AHS) in Amman owes more to hard work and determination than royal wand waving. And while financial backing for the society has not come from her family’s coffers, the AHS counts among its firm supporters the Princess’ husband and their two sons – all vocal advocates for the rights of the disabled in Jordan.

Founded in 1971, the Al-Hussein Society was one of the first in the country to provide housing, education and physical therapy for the disabled. At that time, in the Jordanian capital of Amman, only one facility, which was on the brink of closing, provided specialized care. Also, lack of awareness meant physically and mentally challenged people with no access to resources were often neglected by their families and society. They were labeled “invalids” and seemed forgotten.

It was a good-will visit to a state-run orphanage by Princess Majda and a group of friends that provided inspiration for what would become the AHS. With little more to offer the orphans than open arms, these women would go on to transform how the nation embraces its disabled.

“I remember our beginning very clearly,” the Princess, who is chairwoman of AHS, said as she sat in the center’s director’s office.

Swedish by birth and a Jordanian princess by marriage, Princess Majda arrived in Amman about 40 years ago as the bride of the late King Hussein’s cousin, Prince Ra’d Bin Zeid.

Jordan was then, as now, a country struggling to stand firm in an unstable region. Jordan is bordered by Israel and Palestine on the West and Syria and Iraq on the North and East – and although the nation is heritage rich, it is resource poor. Unlike its affluent Arab Gulf sisters, Jordan has no oil wealth to support its economy. The only source of wealth in the country has been, and remains, its people.

Princess Majda recalled how she and her friends began an informal group to visit government-run orphanages that were in poor condition and in need of volunteers.

“We did not know then that we had a dream,” Rosemary Bdeir, an AHS founding board member said.

The women went to Ashrafiyeh, one of the poorest areas in the capital. There they found an orphanage that was little more than a dumping ground for unwanted infants. The home had 25 babies and only two nurses to care for them.

“Nurses barely had time to prepare milk bottles for feeding the babies,” Mrs. Bdeir said. “The bottles were supported by rolled-up towels, removed when they were empty and then the nurses would begin changing diapers.

“By the time all the babies were fed and changed, it was time to start all over. There was no time for tender loving care.”

The women in Princess Majda’s group, most of them “transplants” – as Mrs. Bdeir likes to call them – that is, born in another country and living in Jordan as a result of marriage or otherwise, would hold the babies and gently rock them while they fed from the bottles.

“We would also put the toddlers in prams and take them out for a walk,” Princess Majda said. “What a sight that was! A bunch of foreign women pushing dozens of babies in strollers through the streets of Amman.”

Being mothers themselves, the women quickly got to know each baby and discovered many of their problems: Fevers and colds were the least of them.

“We also discovered something in ourselves that was hard to live with,” Tennessee-born Mrs. Bdeir admitted.

“The first babies we picked up were the pretty ones, the healthy ones. The babies with birth defects were the last to get TLC.”

But this was all about to change as the Cheshire Home – a British-run physical rehabilitation center and boarding home for the disabled – lost its two physical therapists and was at risk of closing down because of lack of funding. This home was the only one of its kind in Jordan that helped physically handicapped individuals by offering them a place to live, learn and receive treatment.

The situation turned critical when three teenage boarders at the Cheshire Home were threatened with homelessness. The teenagers’ families refused to take them back and the health authorities had no place that would give them shelter.

“That was when we decided to help,” the Princess, who is herself a mother of five, said. “With approval from the appropriate government body, we merged the orphanage and the physical disability center into one – giving these three teenage girls a room to live in the orphanage at Ashrafiyeh.”

Members of the group then officially registered themselves as the Al-Hussein Society for Child Welfare. Their mandate was, and remains, not to merely shelter the disabled but to make each individual a productive member of the community with responsibilities and rights. They also promote and assist in the inclusion of all such children into mainstream schools and society. Additionally, AHS strives to empower families with disabled children with the will to promote their rights of acceptance, their value as individuals and their rightful role in society.

“When we got a permit to open a 15-bed boarding home with a housemother and a physical therapist, that was when the dream began to have shape,” Mrs. Bdeir said.

“Before we even opened the doors, we had 45 children on our waiting list. It was a great leap of faith to open the home as we did not have money or backing.”

In order to support operating costs, the volunteers held a bazaar as the society’s first fund-raising activity. Over time, this would become their main source of revenue.

“We asked all our friends to make crafts and food and donate them. Then, we asked all the same friends to come back and buy them,” Mrs. Bdeir added.

“We begged our husbands, fathers-in-law and anyone else who would listen to give us money. With our hearts in our mouths, our doors opened 31 years ago.”

The society’s board was also aware of the complete lack of educational, social and rehabilitative services for the handicapped in Jordan. Eight years later, in 1979, the same women who took charge of the run-down Ashrafiyeh orphanage decided to take on another task – this time in wholly unfamiliar territory.

“It was like the blind leading the blind,” the Princess said. But they knew one thing for sure: The Ashrafiyeh premises were not suitable.

Unfortunately, royal or not, no one would lease property for a center for the disabled. People then were unexposed to the handicapped, because most families kept their disabled hidden away.

Finally, a two-apartment villa was found and converted into a multipurpose center that offered schooling, limited occupational therapy, physiotherapy and boarding. It was staffed by volunteer workers.

The founding members, who became the society’s board of directors, continued to help run and manage the society. Karen Asfour became involved with AHS in 1973, “after being drawn to this international group of women.”

“I became more and more active in the everyday running of the center,” American-born Mrs. Asfour said. “I have since filled many shoes and played various roles from social worker to executive secretary.

“You see, we were never an honorary board, we were, and still are, very involved,” she said. “Majda was our driving force. No job was beneath her, so nothing could be beneath us.”

It was through this involved board and its chairwoman that the center began to make heads turn, including the then head of state, King Hussein. He donated half an acre of land to the society for new premises.

A few years later, a grant from Sultan Kaboos of Oman finally enabled AHS to construct a modern learning and boarding center, the first of its kind in the country.

AHS moved into its new premises in 1984, in time for a state visit by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II who came to the facility and made her own donation of two wheelchair-accessible buses. Other grants from international organizations gave AHS a kick-start to begin educating children with severe physical disabilities unable to attend regular schools. This program ran parallel to the physical rehabilitation and boarding of 40 girls and boys, most of them from outside the capital.

“After a few years, we closed down our boarding section, as the new rehabilitation philosophy called for social integration of physically challenged individuals rather than their isolation,” Mrs. Asfour said. The children returned to live with their parents as full members of their communities.

All the while, AHS continued to expand its knowledge, resources and human capital. With the society’s growth came social and political maturity. In 1993, Jordan’s first Law for the Welfare of Disabled Persons was enacted giving AHS motivation to carry on.

“It took on a life of its own,” the Princess said, as AHS became the only non-governmental organization in Jordan to provide services with a holistic approach toward physically challenged individuals.

Now employing a staff of almost 90, 18 of whom are physically disabled, its services cover schooling for some 120 children from grades one through six. AHS also provides rehabilitation, physical and occupational therapy, orthotic aids, hydrotherapy, medical support, an early intervention program, and social, psychological and nutritional counseling as well as its revolutionary “outreach program.”

The main aim of the AHS outreach is to open its arms to as many children in remote and poor areas as possible and offer them services otherwise inaccessible. Community Based Rehabilitation started in 1982 with the idea of integrating the disabled into their local communities.

The program is a joint effort between the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, led by Father Andrew de Carpentier – a Dutch Anglican priest – and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) since there are more than 1.6 million Palestinian refugees registered in Jordan.

Specialists from different rehabilitation centers are divided into comprehensive teams, covering all disabilities, with Father Andrew coordinating their visits to communities. Outreach assistance today covers 42 programs in more than 25 locations, serving some 50 towns, refugee camps and rural villages. Its work benefits an estimated 2,900 people annually.

But obstacles never cease and “our biggest challenge each year is how to cover our 300,000 Jordanian dinar (USD $420,000) running cost,” Princess Majda said. “We depend heavily on funding from national and international organizations.”

The past year was particularly tough due to the prevailing global political circumstances resonating from 11 September 2001. Worldwide donations are barely trickling through, especially to Middle East-based NGOs, the Princess said.

“Jordan gets easily forgotten amid the roiling situation in the region,” she said.

“Outsiders assume that all is well in this country since it is quiet and peaceful, but we have heavy economic troubles.”

The threat of not securing enough funds to run AHS remains the most pressing issue for the Princess and her 15 board members who have steered the center through good times and bad. Their vision of turning AHS into a premier resource, referral, research and training center in the Middle East seems close, yet distant right now.

“But God has been with us,” Mrs. Bdeir said. “We are thankful for his help. He opened hearts, purses and made real a dream we truly did not know we had.”

Sahar Aloul is a staff writer for The Jordan Times, based in Amman.

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