Hope Kindled in Bethany

by Thomas McHugh

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Like so many Palestinian towns, Bethany, a hilly arid place not far east of Jerusalem, is blistered with signs of the intifada up and down its steep, dusty inclines. Stores are shuttered up in the afternoon. Many side streets are blocked off by the military with walls of stacked oil drums filled with cement to cut off rebel routes of escape. There are broken houses and vacant lots piled with garbage and twisted pieces of junk, just some evidence of the breakdown in public services. Very young children by the road run alongside a passing vehicle with foreigners, saluting them with “V” signs. Though it is probably beyond their understanding, nationalistic vigor has trickled down even to these children, but it has not yet diminished the luster of their smiles. There is still room for hope and happiness in their hearts.

On one hilltop in Bethany, Beit al-Rafiq, a 35-year-old Muslim named Jamil quoted passages from the Koran in thanksgiving for the opening in January of a l’Arche residence for men, a place he and three other physically and mentally handicapped Palestinians could at last call home. For Jamil, Elias, Saaber and Wassim, the start of the new year was the beginning of a new life in the same hills where Christ raised Lazarus from the dead.

In the West Bank institution where he had been living, Elias, a 38-year-old Syrian Orthodox Christian with Down’s Syndrome, had been regarded something like a pack animal, such was his strength and so poor was the regard given him because of his handicap. Saaber, an 18-year-old also mentally handicapped and unable to walk, might be left on a balcony all day long with no therapy, given no attention, while six-year-old Wassim, abandoned since birth, languished alone in a crib in a dark room. Like Saaber, Wassim had received virtually no therapy or exercise, and he has the appearance of a three-year-old.

Along with several local women, the four have been able to realize something of their self worth in daily sessions at Beit al-Rafiq, the only l’Arche community in the Middle East. It opened in 1985, in part because of the lack of alternative services in the West Bank. A small workshop was started in 1987 to provide a place where the handicapped members of the community and other handicapped people from the neighborhood could develop their capacities and grow to feel useful and creative in a world which often denies the contributions they can make.

Until the recent completion of a men’s residence, Wassim and the handicapped men returned each day to an institution, and the unbridled happiness they shared at Beit al-Rafiq would all but vanish. Each time they returned to the home, Saaber, who can only speak in words and phrases, would implore the l’Arche volunteers: “Boukra,” the Arabic word for “tomorrow.”

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Tags: Palestine Disabilities Funding Employment