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The Gift of Grace

The Shehades’ four affectionate children bounce from lap to lap, in their own way helping ex-prisoners readjust to civilian life.

text and photos by Lucinda Kidd

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In the dilapidated neighborhood of lower Haifa in Israel, the Arab community is being reborn. A renovated church building is at the heart of the revival. In this structure of stone, stucco walls, and archways are released prisoners, battered women, unwed mothers, and drug addicts. They are beginning new lives. The change is not easy for any of them. But they are given “not just one chance. We give them ten chances,” says Kamil Shehade. After several months in the House of Grace, many of its residents can return to the larger community.

House of Grace is like the home of an extended family. Men, women, and children laugh, sing Arab songs, and talk as they do their chores or relax after returning from factory jobs in industrialized Haifa. Kamil, his wife Agnes, their four children, some 15 residents, and several volunteers eat meals together in the simple kitchen. They take turns saying the blessing.

Many of the residents have been convicted of serious crimes, including murder. They have come to House of Grace afraid, frustrated, with very little self-esteem and no skills. Women residents have been ostracized by kin and society. Their lives are endangered by husbands or brothers determined to avenge family honor. Here they are welcomed.

Kamil and Agnes Shehade do not dwell on past sins or failures. This husband and wife have given their lives to help “the people without solutions” of Haifa. They are the founders and “parents” of House of Grace. “We start with the belief that these people are not lost cases,” Kamil says. “We accept them as they are.”

Residents of House of Grace are treated as equals, sharing space, food, and clothing with the Shehades. But most importantly, they share in Kamil and Agnes’s Christian love. “We are not rehabilitating. Here we just love,” Kamil says. “We just want to be the missing family, and that’s enough.”

Family is central to Arab values. The lack of one is devastating in the traditional Middle Eastern Arab society. The political, economic, and social upheaval which followed the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 destroyed the foundation of Haifa’s Arab community.

In the beginning of 1948, 80,000 Arabs lived in the city in a close-knit, flourishing, faith-centered society. By the end of the year, 78,000 had fled to the surrounding countries. Those that stayed were the poor, the elderly, the underprivileged – those who couldn’t escape. They were joined by displaced villagers from the surrounding rural areas of Galilee. This new Arab population congregated in downtown slums. Now they number more than 20,000.

With neither the dignity of work nor the support of the traditional family network, they were left to live in quiet desperation. The area of lower Haifa became more and more depressed. Drug abuse, alcoholism, crime, and prostitution flourished as families disintegrated and people lost touch with their religious roots.

About ten years ago, Kamil Shehade faced this disintegrated community as a young volunteer social worker. One family presented a shattering archetype of the people of the area. It had no means of support and struggled just to survive. The mother was divorced from an alcoholic husband who had physically abused her. She was caring for eight children alone. Her oldest son was in jail and unable to contribute to the family’s care.

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Tags: Israel Economic hardships Homes/housing Alcoholism Substance Abuse